Jimmy Lai among three Hong Kong activists convicted over Tiananmen vigil

Media mogul Jimmy Lai being escorted into the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong on Feb 9, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (AFP) - Jailed Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai was among three democracy campaigners convicted on Thursday (Dec 9) for taking part in a banned Tiananmen vigil as the prosecution of multiple activists came to a conclusion.

Lai, the 74-year-old owner of the now-shuttered pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was found guilty over unlawful assembly charges alongside former journalist Gwyneth Ho and prominent rights lawyer Chow Hang Tung.

The authorities had charged more than two dozen pro-democracy politicians and activists over a vigil last year, which commemorated the victims of Beijing's deadly Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 despite a police ban.

The trio were the only ones to contest their charges in court, meaning they were the last to receive their verdict.

They argued that they went to light candles in a personal capacity and had not "incited" others to join an outlawed rally.

At one point, Chow, a trained barrister who represented herself in court, likened her actions to that of "tank man" - the figure who famously stood in front of a Chinese tank during the Tiananmen crackdown and became an icon.

But District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock dismissed those arguments as "frankly nonsensical" and convicted them of charges, including inciting and taking part in an unauthorised assembly.

"The reality was any intention to come out and participate in the candlelight vigil in Victoria Park that night was an act of defiance and protest against the police," Judge Woodcock ruled.

Amnesty International described the verdicts as the latest "attack on the rights to freedom of expression and assembly" in Hong Kong and said the authorities had criminalised a "peaceful, socially distanced vigil".

The convictions come as the authorities crack down on dissent in Hong Kong.

In practical terms, the latest verdicts make minimal difference to the convicted. Lai, Chow and Ho are among dozens of activists already behind bars facing separate prosecutions under a strict national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last year.

For three decades, Hong Kong's annual June 4 candlelight vigil would attract tens of thousands of people, which - with its slogans for democracy and ending one-party rule in China - became a symbol for the political freedoms enjoyed in the city.

But the Hong Kong authorities have banned the last two vigils, citing both the coronavirus pandemic and security fears.

This year, Beijing made it clear it will no longer tolerate Tiananmen commemorations in Hong Kong or Macau, the only two places within China where public remembrance could take place.

Multiple organisers of the annual vigil - including Chow - were charged with the national security crime of subversion, while a June 4 museum they ran was closed by the authorities and its exhibits carted away.

Unlawful assembly prosecutions have been brought against activists who took part in both the 2020 and 2021 banned Tiananmen vigils.

Previously, 16 politicians and activists - including prominent campaigner Joshua Wong - were sentenced to six to 10 months in jail over their roles in the vigil, with a few granted suspended sentences.

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