Veteran Hong Kong activists on trial over huge democracy rally
Veteran Hong Kong activists went on trial Tuesday for organising one of the biggest democracy protests to engulf the city in 2019, part of a sweeping crackdown targeting Beijing's critics over the last 18 months.
The nine defendants include some of the city's most prominent pro-democracy campaigners, many of whom are staunch nonviolence advocates who have spent decades campaigning in vain for universal suffrage.
Among them are Martin Lee, an 82-year-old barrister who was once chosen by Beijing to help write Hong Kong's mini-constitution, and Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old barrister and former opposition lawmaker.
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, currently in custody after his arrest under Beijing's new national security law, is also among those on trial.
Others are leading members of the Civil Human Rights Front, the coalition that organised a series of huge rallies throughout 2019.
They each face up to five years in jail if convicted.
As they entered court on Tuesday, some of the activists flashed a three-finger salute, a symbol now used across Asia to protest authoritarianism.
The group is being prosecuted for organising an unauthorised assembly on August 18, 2019 -- one of the biggest to convulse Hong Kong that year as people took to the streets for seven straight months calling for democracy and greater police accountability.
Organisers estimated 1.7 million people turned out -- almost one in four Hong Kong residents -- though that number was difficult to independently verify.
Those involved described it as the second-largest protest of 2019, and it was undoubtedly one of the biggest rallies that year, with demonstrators marching peacefully for hours under a sea of umbrellas and thundery skies.
Protests in Hong Kong can only go ahead with the permission of authorities, though rights groups have long criticised the use of unauthorised assembly prosecutions.
Since 2019, protests have been all but outlawed with authorities either refusing permission on security grounds or later because of the pandemic.
The rallies in 2019 often descended into clashes between riot police and a knot of hardcore participants, and posed the most concerted challenge to China's rule since the former British colony's 1997 handover.
The movement eventually fizzled out under the combined weight of exhaustion, some 10,000 arrests and the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities have since unleashed a broad crackdown and Beijing has imposed a new security law which criminalises much dissent.
China and Hong Kong's leaders say the law is needed to restore stability to the finance hub.
Critics counter that Beijing has shredded the liberties and autonomy it promised Hong Kong could maintain after the handover.