Hong Kong jails ailing veteran activist over fake coffin protest

Koo Sze-yiu, also known as 'Long Beard,' gets a 9-month jail term for 'sedition,' despite advanced cancer.
By Ng Ting Hong and Alice Yam for RFA Cantonese
2024.02.16
Hong Kong jails ailing veteran activist over fake coffin protest Hong Kong activist Koo Sze-yiu (front R) carries a mock coffin during a demonstration in Hong Kong, May 26, 2019.
Kin Cheung/AP

A court in Hong Kong on Friday handed down a nine-month jail term to a septuagenarian rights activist with terminal cancer after finding him guilty of "attempted sedition" for planning to protest an ongoing crackdown on political opposition using a fake coffin.

Veteran social activist Koo Sze-yiu, 78, also known as “Long Beard,” was sentenced by the West Kowloon Magistrate’s Court.

Koo pleaded not guilty to the charge of "attempting or preparing to commit an act with seditious intent" on Dec. 11, but agreed that he had planned to take a coffin to the Electoral Registration Office in protest at the lack of opposition candidates in last year's District Council elections.

Koo, who has been jailed at least a dozen times before, was a frequent participant in peaceful mass protests that once took place regularly in Hong Kong, before a city-wide crackdown on "illegal" public assembly in the wake of the 2019 protest movement. 

He has stage four colorectal cancer, and has been arrested and jailed several times already since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, including for "desecrating the national flag" in July 2020.

National security judge Victor So said Koo's actions "had the intention of incitement," and that his purpose in planning the protest was to "humiliate the government" and incite people to hate the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities.

According to So, Koo's fake coffin was emblazoned with the words "One Country, Two Systems to the funeral parlor," in a reference to Beijing's promise that Hong Kong would retain its separate political and judicial system after the handover to Chinese rule, and “Want a seat? Love the country and the [Chinese Communist] Party," in a reference to electoral rule changes that only allow "patriots" to run for public office.

Hong Kong activist Koo Sze-yiu speaks to the media after arriving at a court in Hong Kong, Sept. 30, 2020. (Kin Cheung/AP)
Hong Kong activist Koo Sze-yiu speaks to the media after arriving at a court in Hong Kong, Sept. 30, 2020. (Kin Cheung/AP)

The change to the rules came after millions of voters in Hong Kong delivered a stunning rebuke to Beijing and their own government with a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates across the city's 18 district councils at the height of the 2019 protests.

Koo had also planned to bring "hell money," or underworld banknotes typically burned as an offering to the dead, along to the protest, So said.

Request for leniency

Koo, who represented himself in court, asked for leniency, adding that he had been protesting peacefully for decades, but So cut him short, adding that the nine-month sentence should act as a "deterrent" to others.

Koo responded: "I am happy to be a fighter for social justice and a foot soldier of the democratic movement. I hope to be a martyr for democracy and human rights." 

He warned that the forthcoming national security legislation under Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law would be a disaster for Hong Kong's people, who will only be permitted to "eat, sleep, pee and poop" after it's enacted.

While the 2020 National Security Law ushered in a citywide crackdown that has seen thousands prosecuted for taking part in protests and senior journalists, pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai and 47 former lawmakers and democracy activists charged with offenses from "collusion with a foreign power" to "subversion."  

Koo, who told the court he had undergone further surgery for rectal adenocarcinoma in the spring of 2023, added: "Where I'm coming from is very straightforward. I've always wanted true democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law for Hong Kong."

He said that since the imposition of the 2020 National Security Law on the city, Hong Kong's 7 million people have "one foot in the underworld," which was why he had planned to bring along the "hell money."

During the 2019 democracy movement, protesters in Sham Shui Po burned spirit money bearing the faces of then Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other officials as "offerings" during Ghost Month as a gesture of anger against the government.

Judge So said Koo's 15 previous convictions, the last of which was in July 2022, were taken into account when passing sentence.

At the end of the hearing, spectators in the public gallery shouted out "Hang in there" and "Happy Birthday" to Koo.

The sentence came as the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Hong Kong 88th out of 167 jurisdictions for democracy.

The city scored just 2.75 out of a maximum score of 10 for its electoral process, and 3.64 out of 10 for the functioning of its government, according to the EIU Democracy Index 2023.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.

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