On Wednesday, Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Marco Fong were found guilty of “conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.”
Judge WK Kwok called the defendants’ actions “an exercise in brainwashing in order to lead very young children to accept their views and values, that is, (Beijing) has no sovereignty over ( Hong Kong)”.
Yeung said in court on Saturday that his “only regret was not publishing more picture books before his arrest,” according to court documents.
The charges center on a series of books that tell the stories of a village of sheep resisting a pack of wolves invading their home, a story that government prosecutors say was meant to draw scorn from the local government. and China’s central government in Beijing.
In one book wolves tried to take over a village and eat the sheep, in another 12 sheep are forced to leave their village after being attacked by wolves, which the court believed alluded to the case where 12 activists from Hong Kong tried to flee. the city to Taiwan as fugitives, but were intercepted by the Chinese police.
In a ruling on Wednesday, a Hong Kong District Court judge sided with the prosecution, expressing his opinion that the images had a correlation to events in the city and finding that the perpetrators intended to “generate hate or contempt or arouse discontent”. against local and central government, or both.
“By identifying the (PRC) government as the wolves…children will be led to believe that (the PRC government) is coming to Hong Kong with the evil intention of taking away their home and ruining their lives. happy with has no right to do so,” Judge Kwok Wai Kin wrote in a 67-page document outlining his opinion of the verdict.
“The publishers of the books clearly refuse to acknowledge that (China) has resumed exercising sovereignty over (Hong Kong),” Kwok wrote in his decision, referring to the transfer of Hong Kong, a former British colony, to rule. Chinese in 1997.
The case has become an indicator of looming questions about the limits of free speech in the city, amid a further crackdown on civil liberties as part of Beijing’s response to large-scale anti-government protests that have lasted months in 2019.
Those protests, sparked in response to a proposed bill that could send Hongkongers to face trial for crimes across the border, morphed into a larger pro-democracy movement that was also related to the popular concern about Beijing’s growing influence in the semi-autonomous city.
The defense of the defendants, who were all members of the executive council of the now-defunct Hong Kong General Union of Speech Therapists, had argued that the charges against them were unconstitutional, as they were incompatible with their Hong Kong-protected freedoms of expression. . law.
But Kwok, who is also part of a small cohort of judges selected by the city leader to hear cases related to national security, rejected that challenge, saying the limited restrictions on free speech were necessary for the protection of the public. National security. and public order.
In a document outlining the grounds for the guilty verdict, Kwok disputed that the books were simply fables promoting universal values, another argument raised by the defense, pointing to a foreword to one of the books that refers to a “movement against ” in 2019 and the “One Country, Two Systems” mechanism that governs Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland.
The case came to light after his arrest, when police accused the group in a tweet of “cheating protesters’ illegal acts” and “glorifying fleeing fugitives,” with officials expressing specific concerns given that the target audience were children. Beijing and local leaders have tried to encourage national pride among Hong Kong’s youth, including by reinforcing national education in local curricula.
The verdict has been met with protests from rights advocates. Human Rights Watch in a statement accused the Hong Kong government of using the “very broad” sedition law “to criminalize minor speech offences.”
“Hong Kong people used to read about the absurd prosecution of people in mainland China for writing political allegories, but this is now happening in Hong Kong,” Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Hong Kong authorities should reverse this dramatic decline in freedoms and overturn the convictions of the five children’s book authors.”
In July, the United Nations Human Rights Committee also called on Hong Kong to repeal its colonial-era sedition law, saying it was concerned about its use to limit citizens’ “legitimate right to freedom of expression.” .
In a response, the government said that the use of the law was “not intended to silence the expression of any opinion that is only genuine criticism of the government based on objective facts.”
The law, part of a 1938 Crimes Ordinance that went unused for decades, has been revived alongside Beijing’s introduction of a National Security Law in Hong Kong in 2020, targeting secession, subversion, collision with foreign forces and terrorist activities, with a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Last year, a court ruled that parts of the original sedition law that referred to the monarch could become references to the central government or the Hong Kong government. A conviction carries a maximum sentence of two years.
Other recent cases include the sentencing of a 75-year-old activist to nine months in prison for planning to protest the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year. Last month, two men were arrested on suspicion of breaking the law in connection with a Facebook group they allegedly ran.
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