Hong Kong court finds Jimmy Lai guilty of 'incitement' over banned vigil

Activist Chow Hang-tung and journalist Gwyneth Ho are also convicted of the same charge.
By Sham Yin Hang and Gigi Lee
Hong Kong court finds Jimmy Lai guilty of 'incitement' over banned vigil Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai is shown in a June 16, 2020 photo.

A Hong Kong court on Thursday found pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai and barrister Chow Hang-tung guilty of "inciting others" to join a banned candlelight vigil marking the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Chow, who headed the now-disbanded vigil organizing group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, was also convicted of "participating in an illegal assembly" by attending the event, along with fellow activist and former journalist Gwyneth Ho.

Judge Amanda Woodcock cited Lai's attendance at a news conference outside Victoria Park alongside members of the Alliance, and a post Chow made to her Facebook page in evidence.

Sentencing is expected on Monday.

"I am sure the prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt from the evidence admitted that what was said and done as a group gathered at the Water Fountain Plaza was an intention by [Lai and Chow] and others to unlawfully incite others to knowingly take part in an unauthorized assembly in Victoria Park that evening," Woodcock wrote in her judgment, which came after 21 other defendants in the case pleaded guilty.

Lai, Chow and Ho had pleaded not guilty, with Lai arguing that he had merely told the news conference that he would be going to the vigil, not encouraged others to do the same, and Chow arguing that she had merely written "see you tonight" on Facebook.

Ho had uploaded photos of white mourning flowers and candles, which were used to prosecute her for attending the vigil.

The verdict came as a Paris-based press freedom group cited the raid on Lai's now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper as evidence of rapidly deteriorating press freedom since the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed a draconian national security law on the city from July 1, 2020, ushering in an ever-widening crackdown on public dissent and political opposition.

"A quarter of a century after Hong Kong's handover to the People's Republic of China, the principle of press freedom, although guaranteed until 2047 in the Basic Law that commands the territory, is more threatened than ever," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a report titled "The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China."

In said Hong Kong had slipped down the ranks in the RSF World Press Freedom Index from 18th place when the index was created in 2002, to 80th place in 2020.

"During this period, Beijing progressively took control of parts of Hong Kong’s Chinese-language media and established an indirect system of putting pressure on other media through their advertisers," the report said, adding that the situation had worsened with the imposition of the national security law.

"The deliberately vague text ... opens the door to arbitrary arrests and sentencing under the appearance of legality," RSF said, citing University of Hong Kong journalism professor Keith Richburg as saying that the law condemns press freedom in Hong Kong to "death by a thousand cuts."

Journalists are the "new black sheep" in Hong Kong, the report said, citing Lai and Ho's arrests, the closure of Lai's Next Digital media empire under investigation by the national security police and the tightening of political control over the editorial output of Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), among many other examples.

Hong Kong officials hit back

Hong Kong officials meanwhile hit back against criticism of the city's forthcoming elections, in which all candidates have been pre-approved as "patriots" by a Beijing-backed committee.

The CCP's foreign ministry commissioner in Hong Kong, Liu Guangyuan, said Beijing wouldn't allow other countries to meddle in the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections on Dec. 19.

"Whatever electoral system that Hong Kong is using, it is China’s internal affair. Whatever form or disguise you are using to interfere with the LegCo election, you will be strongly countered by the Chinese government," Liu told a seminar on "democracy" on Thursday.

In an apparent reference to the 2019 protest movement and former pro-democracy lawmakers, Liu said some in Hong Kong had been "confused," and "blindly worshipped Western-style democracy."

"They mistakenly believe that problems can be solved as long as American-style democracy can be implemented in Hong Kong,” he said.

Chief executive Carrie Lam called on the city's nearly five million voters to cast their "sacred votes" on Sunday.

"There is no one size fits all in democracy," Lam told journalists on Tuesday. "One has to remember the ultimate aim and purpose of a democratic system is to improve the livelihood of the people. What's the point of having the so-called democracy if people are suffering, as you can see in some Western democracies in the course of fighting COVID-19?"

She said she expects a "more rational" LegCo to result from the new election process, prior to which dozens of former opposition lawmakers and activists were arrested and await trial for "subversion" after organizing a democratic primary.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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