Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to members of the media at the High Court in Hong Kong, China. File/Reuters
Twenty-four activists appeared in a Hong Kong court on Friday on charges related to a June 4 vigil last year marking the anniversary of China’s military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Hong Kong traditionally holds the largest vigil in the world every year, although it was banned in 2020, with authorities giving the risk of spreading the coronavirus as the reason. The vigils have always been banned in mainland China.
But thousands of Hong Kong people defied the ban and took to the streets to stage candlelight rallies in the former British colony which was promised wide-ranging freedoms when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, including rights of expression and assembly.
Released from jail to attend the court hearing were media tycoon and staunch Beijing critic Jimmy Lai, 73, and prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong, 24.
Lai is being held pending a bail hearing after he became the city’s most high-profile person to be charged under a controversial national security law. Wong is serving more than 13 months related to an unlawful anti-government rally in 2019.
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Five of the group, including Wong, indicated they planned to plead guilty to charges related to illegal assembly and their case was adjourned to April 30. The rest were expected to plead not guilty and their case was adjourned to June 11.
Outside the court, more than a dozen supporters shouted slogans and held up placards that read, “Against political suppression” and “Innocent to mourn June 4.”
Last year’s June 4 anniversary came nearly four weeks before Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong that Western governments and rights groups have widely condemned as a tool to crush freedoms in the global financial hub.
Hong Kong and Chinese authorities reject that and say the legislation was necessary to restore stability after a year of sometimes violent anti-China and anti-government demonstrations.
China has never provided a full account of the 1989 violence. The death toll given by officials days later was about 300, most of them soldiers, but rights groups and witnesses say thousands of people may have perished.
If the defendants are denied bail, it would mean that most of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures would be in jail or in self-exile abroad amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
In December, a Chinese court sentenced 10 of the 12 to between seven months and three years in jail. Defendants Tang Kai-yin and Quinn Moon, who were sentenced to three and two years, respectively, remain in Shenzhen.
The activists are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial primary poll last July aimed at selecting the strongest candidates for a legislative council election that the government later postponed, citing the coronavirus.
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