Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van in Hong Kong, China. File/Reuters
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and nine other pro-democracy activists are expected to be sentenced on Friday after they were found guilty of participating in unauthorised assemblies during anti-government protests in 2019.
It would be the first time that Lai, one of Hong Kong's most prominent democratic activists, who has been in jail since December after being denied bail in a separate national security trial, will receive a sentence.
About 100 people queued outside the court early on Friday to get a seat for the hearing.
“It was already very difficult to fight for democracy and freedom in the past. With the national security law, it’s even harder,” 19-year-old student Yan said while waiting.
“We need to believe in our faith and wait for the time to come again,” said the student, who declined to give his full name due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Lai was found guilty in two separate trials earlier in April for illegal assemblies on Aug. 18 and Aug. 31 2019, respectively. The maximum possible punishment is five years in prison.
His repeated arrests have drawn criticism from Western governments and international rights groups, who raised concerns over waning freedoms in the global financial hub, including freedom of speech and assembly.
In the Aug. 18 case, District Court judge Amanda Woodcock found him guilty together with Martin Lee, who helped launch the city's largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990s and is often called the former British colony's “father of democracy.”
As he entered the court on Friday, Lee said: “I feel completely relaxed, I'm ready to face my sentence.”
The other defendants, also found guilty, included prominent barrister Margaret Ng and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung. The latter two had pleaded guilty.
In the second trial, the same judge found Lai and Lee Cheuk-yan guilty together with Yeung Sum. The Aug. 31 clashes were some of Hong Kong's worst, with police firing tear gas and water cannons at pro-democracy protesters who threw petrol bombs.
All three had pleaded guilty.
Lee Cheuk-yan posted on Facebook late on Thursday that he expected to go to jail but that his mind was “free as the ocean and the sky.”
The 2019 pro-democracy protests were spurred by Beijing's tightening squeeze on wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, and plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the handover.
Beijing has since consolidated its authoritarian grip on Hong Kong by imposing a sweeping national security law, punishing anything it deems as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Supporters of the law say it has restored stability.
Lai, founder of the Apple Daily tabloid, has been a frequent visitor to Washington, meeting officials such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor.”
Lai is scheduled for two more court mentions on Friday, in the ongoing trial where he is charged with collusion with a foreign country and a fraud case related to the lease of the building which houses Apple Daily.
Earlier this week, the tabloid published a hand-written letter Lai sent to his colleagues from prison, saying: “It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice. As long as we are not blinded by unjust temptations, as long as we do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility.”
It is “time for us to stand tall,” he wrote.
Police, widely criticised for failing to better protect the public from the triad raid in Yuen Long, have refused to allow the latest march on safety grounds.
Police on Sunday sought to defend China’s main representative office in Hong Kong from protesters for the second consecutive weekend, with the building near the heart of the financial centre
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.
Lai had been in custody since Dec.3, except when he was released on bail for about a week late last year. He was granted a HK$10 million ($1.3 million) bail by a lower court on Dec. 23 only for the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) to bring him back into custody on Dec.31
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