HONG KONG — A Hong Kong court on Thursday jailed a tycoon, activists and a local news site editor for organizing a January 2015 vigil in Hong Kong’s Legco to commemorate the Tiananmen Square crackdown, even as the government has come under criticism over a failure to punish similar acts.
The verdicts came after a monthlong trial in which a series of witnesses testified that the men had used speeches, posters and banners to seek to “persuade” members of the public to attend the march, a public memorial honoring the 1989 deaths of hundreds of pro-democracy activists in Beijing’s crackdown on student-led protests.
Rights groups criticized Hong Kong authorities for allowing the proceedings to proceed with only a court summons against the defendants. In the end, the trial was one of the small number of Communist Party-run mainland China trials featuring an unusually broad range of participants that have drawn international attention and attention on the mainland.
One of the defendants, Jimmy Lai, founder of now-defunct video-sharing site Now TV, who is involved in a high-profile hotel and property business in Hong Kong, faces a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison and was immediately taken into custody. He stood trial on a charge of disrupting public assembly and had pleaded not guilty.
The other seven defendants were each fined between HK$200 and HK$500 ($27 and $71), the equivalent of just over US$27 and US$76.
Among them were the website administrator of the illegal installment site Duncan Li, who was ordered to pay HK$800,000 ($109,000). Another defendant, Edmund Chung, who helped Lai organize the event, had pleaded guilty to a charge of participating in a crowd of more than 15 people and was sentenced to a minor penalty of 10 days in jail.
Lai was charged after police detained him at the vigil on Jan. 30, 2015, while he was accompanied by 10 other demonstrators who, according to police, he had invited to join the protest.
Last year, several of the defendants released videos that amplified their accounts of the protest. They have said that they attended the rally on their own initiative, that police arrested them after they left, and that they were arrested outside the Legco building itself.
But in response to mounting public pressure, the government has agreed to work with the American Center to host free monthly events with public discussion in Hong Kong aimed at fostering open and independent political debate.
In January 2016, the government permitted a one-day trial of a public gathering after a lengthy round of consultations, agreeing to allocate HK$500,000 for printing costs. But the trial had to be rescheduled and rescheduled.
Lai’s lawyer, Jonathan Man, said his client had been subjected to persecution on the mainland by the Chinese authorities and therefore should not face additional punishment here.
“We think he should not be put in jail for just doing a political demonstration in an open place,” Man said.
However, many rights groups and dissidents called the sentencing a blow to press freedom.