HONG KONG — Nine Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were sentenced to between six and 10 months in prison on Wednesday for taking part in an unauthorized assembly at last year's vigil for the victims of China's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on protesters.
The former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of wide-ranging freedoms, traditionally holds the largest June 4 vigil in the world.
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But the last two vigils were banned by police citing coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings. But coming after the mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, the ban was seen by many activists as an attempt to shut down any display of defiance toward Beijing. Hong Kong authorities denied that was the reason.
Despite the ban, thousands turned up to light candles across the city in 2020, and smaller crowds did the same in 2021.
"The defendants ignored and belittled a genuine public health crisis," District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock said.
"They wrongly and arrogantly believed their common purpose was more important than protecting the community or the public’s right to protection from a serious health risk."
Three other activists received suspended sentences.
All 12 had pleaded guilty, including veteran vigil organizer Albert Ho, former lawmaker Eddie Chu and Figo Chan, a former leader of the Civil Human Rights Front known for organizing large-scale pro-democracy rallies.
Last week, police arrested members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organizer of the vigils, under national security legislation imposed by Beijing last year. Police accused the Alliance of being an "agent of foreign forces," which the Alliance denies.
Alliance leaders Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan and Chow Hang Tung were charged last week with inciting subversion. Ho and Lee are already in jail over their role in the protests in 2019. Chow was denied bail.
Police last week also raided the premises of the closed June 4th museum dedicated to the Tiananmen victims.
The museum, which closed on June 2 because of an investigation by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department into its licensing, reopened online as "8964 Museum" and now operates independently from the Alliance.