Seven leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement were convicted Thursday over their roles in organizing an anti-government demonstration in 2019 that fueled a harsh crackdown from Beijing.
The verdict marks the latest attempt to cut the movement off at the knees as mainland China works to tighten its control over the historically autonomous island. Beijing has arrested several activists in an attempt to quell protests over an array of measures critics have said will curtail traditional freedoms Hong Kong residents have enjoyed.
Among those convicted were Jimmy Lai, the owner of the Apple Daily tabloid; Martin Lee, the founder of the city’s Democratic Party; and five other former lawmakers who backed the movement. Two other former lawmakers who were charged in the same case had already pleaded guilty.
They all face up to five years in prison, according to The Associated Press. Sentencing is set to take place later this month.
The convictions all centered around an August 2019 protest on the island calling for government reforms and criticizing police tactics there. Estimates put the crowd at that rally at over 1 million.
The anti-government demonstrations that started in 2019 led Beijing to pass a law handing down harsh punishments for vague crimes regarding secession, subversion and terrorist activities. China last month also pressed forward with a move to select more of Hong Kong’s lawmakers.
Former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, one of the seven convicted, told the AP he was disappointed in the ruling.
“We are firm that we have the right to assemble,” he said. “It is our badge of honor to be in jail for walking together with the people of Hong Kong.”
International human rights monitors also panned the convictions, suggesting they marked a big step in Beijing’s efforts to stamp out dissent.
“The verdict is an extremely big blow. These are respected, internationally renowned, moderate democrats, some of the mainstream politicians in Hong Kong. The opposition in Hong Kong is now very significantly constrained,” said Hong Kong Watch's Benedict Rogers.
The State Department has also berated Beijing over its Hong Kong restrictions, saying in a report Wednesday that its actions are “inconsistent” with its obligations to “allow Hong Kong to enjoy a high degree of autonomy.”