Two Hong Kong pro-democracy activists pleaded guilty on Feb. 15 to charges related to an illegal assembly during mass pro-democracy protests in August 2019, while seven others, including media mogul Jimmy Lai, pleaded not guilty.
The 2019 protests, fueled by fears of Beijing’s curbing of wide-ranging freedoms promised to the former British colony upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the handover.
The rally in August 2019 was estimated to have drawn more than 1 million people, despite heavy rain, and provided a respite from the clashes between protesters and police seen often at demonstrations in the months before and after.
Former pro-democracy politician and activist Au Nok-hin pleaded guilty to organizing and knowingly taking part in an unauthorized assembly, while Leung Yiu-chung, another activist, pleaded guilty to participating in an illegal assembly.
Leung and Au will hear the verdict on March 22.
The other seven activists on trial, including prominent Beijing critic Lai, Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, and veteran activists Lee Cheuk-yan, and Leung Kwok-hung, known as Long Hair, pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The latter two shouted “Object to political prosecution!” when making the plea.
Lee, a Catholic, was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The 82-year-old is a longtime pacifist embracing the activism and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
Beijing has responded to the 2019 protests by imposing a sweeping national security law in June last year, punishing anything China deems as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Since the introduction of the law, the government has disqualified opposition politicians and jailed activists, while authorities have banned slogans, songs and pro-democracy political activity in schools.
Lai has been in custody since December and is scheduled for another court appearance on Feb. 17 for his appeal against an earlier decision to deny him bail in relation to charges of colluding with foreign forces.
The 72-year-old has been a frequent visitor to Washington, meeting with officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.
Lai was born to a rich family in mainland China in 1947. His family suffered once the communists took power in 1949, with his mother being sent to a labor camp. At the age of 12 he was smuggled into Hong Kong. Cardinal Joseph Zen baptized him in 1997, the same year that the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule.