Tiananmen vigil leader invokes Gandhi at Hong Kong sentencing

A photo taken on June 4, 2020, shows Mr Lee Cheuk-yan (second from right) leading a candlelit remembrance with other activists. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - A leading Hong Kong democracy activist facing jail invoked Mahatma Gandhi's civil disobedience campaign in court on Wednesday (Nov 17) as he gave a defiant speech defending his decision to take part in a banned Tiananmen vigil.

Lee Cheuk-yan is one of eight pro-democracy figures on trial for joining a vigil last year which had been banned by Hong Kong police for the first time in 31 years, citing the coronavirus and security fears.

Five defendants, including Lee, have pleaded guilty to joining an "unauthorised assembly".

At Wednesday's sentencing hearing Lee stood to deliver an emotional statement in which he compared Hong Kong's democracy movement to India's struggle for freedom from colonial Britain.

"We are all followers of Gandhi's idea of non-violent struggle, hoping to bring democratic reforms to Hong Kong," he said, occasionally choking back sobs.

"Now that I am imprisoned as Gandhi was, I will learn to be as fearless as Gandhi was."

The veteran activist and labour rights organiser said he had "no regrets" about defying the police ban.

"If I must go to jail to affirm my will, then so be it," Lee said at the close of his speech.

Lee, 64, was in Beijing during the 1989 crackdown against democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square and became a leader of the Hong Kong Alliance - the group which organised huge candlelight vigils in the city each June to remember those killed.

For years Hong Kong was the one place in China where what happened in 1989 could still be publicly remembered.

But China is currently remoulding the business hub in its own authoritarian image after huge and often violent democracy protests two years ago.

Commemorating Tiananmen has been effectively outlawed by a new national security law designed to crush dissent.

The Hong Kong Alliance disbanded earlier this year after some of its key leaders were charged with subversion under the security law while a Tiananmen museum the group ran was raided by police.

More than 150 people have been arrested under the security law - mostly for their political beliefs and speech - and around half are being prosecuted.

Six of the eight defendants on trial for last year's Tiananmen vigil were already in jail before proceedings began, including Lee.

Three defendants - jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai, the alliance's vice chair Chow Hang-tung and journalist-turned activist Gwyneth Ho - have pleaded not guilty.

The trial verdicts and sentencing will be handed down next month.

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

National security offences carry much stiffer penalties of up to life in jail and bail is rarely granted. Lee, Lai and Chow are among those facing upcoming national security trials.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.