HONG KONG — Jimmy Lai has skewered the Chinese Communist Party for decades. The 73-year-old founder of a fiercely pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, Lai helped give voice to critics of the city’s leaders and their bosses in Beijing, winning friends in Washington and other places along the way.
Now, for one of his acts of defiance, Lai is going to prison.
A Hong Kong court on Friday sentenced Lai to 12 months in prison for his role in a peaceful demonstration in 2019 against Beijing’s encroachment over the semi-autonomous territory. Three activists and a labor leader were given sentences of eight to 18 months for their role in the protest.
Other prominent opposition figures received suspended sentences, meaning they would avoid being put behind bars if they are not convicted of another crime in the next two years. They included Martin Lee, 82, a lawyer who is often called Hong Kong’s “father of democracy,” who was given an 11-month suspended term.
The sentences fell short of the maximum of five years in prison the defendants had faced. Still, they sent an unmistakable message that activism carries severe risks for even the most internationally prominent opposition figures. Supporters of the defendants say the sentences are the latest sign of the fundamental transformation that Beijing has sought to impose on Hong Kong, once a bastion of free speech, to silence dissent.
China’s ruling Communist Party has long regarded Lee and Lai as troublemakers. The penalties meted out now allow Beijing to cast them as criminals, bolstering its defiance of foreign criticism and the sanctions that the United States imposed after the crackdown on Hong Kong.
Lai’s legal jeopardy may be just beginning. He faces additional charges, including under a sweeping national security law, in which political offenses for defying Beijing are vaguely defined and carry heavier sentences.
Dozens of pro-democracy politicians also face charges of subversion under a tough national security law. China has overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system to cement the pro-Beijing establishment’s grip on power. Protests have been largely barred during the pandemic, and self-censorship in the media and arts, which are under intense official pressure, is a growing concern.
The charges centered on a march on Aug. 18, 2019, that followed a gathering in Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island. The rally in the park had been permitted by police, but the authorities, citing the violence at earlier protests, had not approved plans for demonstrators to march about 2 miles to government headquarters afterward.
Hundreds of thousands gathered in the summer rain. And as the defendants marched out of the park after the rally, behind a banner that denounced the police’s use of force during the protests, the crowd followed. While the prosecution acknowledged that there had been no violence, aside from a single demonstrator kicking traffic cones, they cited the tense atmosphere of that period, with anger toward the police running high, and widespread traffic disruptions.
Lai, the media mogul, was smuggled into Hong Kong from mainland China as a child and worked his way up from factory laborer to clothing company tycoon. He then put his wealth into crusading, tabloid-style publications that have been sharply critical of authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Lai also faces a fraud case and charges of collusion with a foreign country under the security law for accusations that he called for sanctions against Hong Kong.
In a separate hearing Friday, prosecutors added two more charges, accusing Lai of conspiracy to commit subversion and obstructing justice. The national security law, which was imposed by Beijing last year, grants authorities broad powers to crack down on a variety of political crimes, including meting out life imprisonment for “grave” offenses.
In the illegal assembly case, the court rejected defense arguments that imprisonment for a nonviolent march would infringe on the rights to free speech and assembly that have traditionally been protected in Hong Kong.
Judge Amanda Woodcock said on April 1, when the convictions were announced, that while Hong Kong recognizes the right to peaceful assembly, the law imposes limits to ensure safety, order and the rights of others. To refrain from prosecution just because a demonstration was peaceful “would give the law no teeth and make a mockery of it,” she wrote in her ruling.
Leung Kwok-hung, an activist better known as Long Hair for his unkempt mane, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, the heaviest punishment. Lee Cheuk-yan, a labor leader, received a 12-month sentence, and Cyd Ho, an activist, eight months. Albert Ho and Margaret Ng, two prominent lawyers, were both given suspended sentences. All the defendants except for Lai had served in Hong Kong’s legislature.
Ng, speaking to the court before the sentencing, defended her right to demonstrate.
“When the people, in the last resort, had to give collective expression to their anguish and urge the government to respond, protected only by their expectation that the government will respect their rights, I must be prepared to stand with them, stand by them and stand up for them,” she said.
The offense of organizing and participating in an unauthorized assembly carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. Lai and Lee Cheuk-yan were also given two additional months in prison from a separate trial over a separate protest in 2019, bringing their expected terms in prison to 14 months each.