HONG KONG — A court in Hong Kong on Tuesday found eight pro-democracy activists guilty of illegally participating in an illegal assembly in the southern Chinese city this summer and sentenced them to up to a year in jail.
A ninth activist appeared in court but was found not guilty by a separate court.
The U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia reported that the verdicts were handed down by Hong Kong Chief Magistrate Regina Cuningham.
The rulings came after a monthlong trial in which the defendants have denied illegally trying to pressure the government to allow a public vote to choose the city’s next leader in 2017.
“We are disappointed but not surprised,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, director of the Dan Murphy Center for the Study of China at the University of Southern California. “It is a significant moment in Hong Kong’s legal history. There are now clear and credible legal arguments for why the decision to hold the illegal assembly was unlawful. This case, and the potential legal consequences, greatly complicate the political situation in Hong Kong.”
The eight defendants — the leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Daniel Chow; the secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Lester Shum; Wong Shun Yau, a student at the New Territories Vocational College; Albert Ho, a physician; Yau Wai Ching, a mechanic; Francis Chan, a fashion retailer; and Nathan Law, a legislator — have also challenged their charges before a Hong Kong appeals court.
They said they were exercising their right to free speech and were only protesting what they considered unfair government measures. They were arrested hours after the June 4 Democracy Protest erupted in the city, marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of communist China. Authorities said the defendants had tried to take control of a small section of Nathan Road in the center of the financial district, but the defendants said the attempt was peaceful and helped foster understanding.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, maintains a high degree of autonomy, including freedom of speech. But the city has seen a gradual erosion of those freedoms since its return to China, with the Chinese government increasingly deciding on policies for Hong Kong, including issues related to elections. In response to a series of large pro-democracy protests last year, China agreed to allow candidates to be vetted before they could seek the top job in the semi-autonomous territory. But with 18 candidates from which to choose, most appeared unwilling to open themselves up to restrictions.
The group in question had crowded into a small venue and set up an impromptu “free-expression zone,” a claim that is a subject of contention in Hong Kong. Authorities called the demonstration illegal and arrested most of the individuals soon after it erupted.
In a separate case, the Hong Kong University Law School announced Tuesday that it had agreed to a request from the police for an independent review of the handling of the court case.
“The arrangements made in the police case were wrong and unnecessary,” said Duncan Macrae, a spokesman for the law school, adding that arrangements would be made in the future “in such a way that an independent second legal expert can carry out the investigation.”
Asked about the decision, Police Commissioner Andy Tsang told reporters: “If I comment on that, I would be doing the wrong thing. The decision is based on the need for professional and impartial investigation. The objective of the investigation is to satisfy the public by publicly investigating and presenting the results of this inquiry in a thorough and competent manner.”
Still to come from the case are a judicial review of the prosecution’s power to lock up people at police stations without any notice to the public and a suit challenging the constitutionality of the charges against the eight convicted activists. A lawsuit has already been filed by the city’s leader calling on the Hong Kong justice secretary to immediately release the defendants, claiming that the action violated their freedom of expression and right to a fair trial.
“The [government] could have released the defendants long ago if they had acted with integrity in their decision to prosecute,” the petition states. “The action of the Special Executive Office is a severe violation of [the city’s constitution]. This is not a good precedent for the Administration and the judicial process in the future.”
Hong Kong Law School’s executive dean, Anthony Mings, said the review would seek to develop a process for determining when the government could arrest and jail people without prior notification to the public, under a provision in Hong Kong’s Basic Law that is part of the city’s human rights legislation.