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HONG KONG - A Hong Kong court found seven prominent democrats guilty of unauthorised assembly charges, including 82-year-old barrister Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 72, the latest blow to the city's beleaguered democracy movement.
Lee, who helped launch the city's largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990s and is often called the former British colony's "father of democracy," was accused of taking part in an unauthorised assembly on Aug. 18, 2019.
The silver-haired Lee and the others, all in their 60s or older, sat impassively as district court judge Amanda Woodcock handed down her decision.
"I have found after trial the prosecution able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that all of the defendants together organised what amounted to an unauthorised assembly," the district court judge said in the full written judgement.
They were also found guilty of knowingly participating in an unauthorised assembly.
Although Hong Kong's mini-constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, Woodcock added, "restrictions are imposed, including those for preserving public safety and public order, and protecting the rights of others."
Sentencing will come on April 16, with some legal experts expecting jail terms of 12-18 months. The maximum possible sentence is 5 years.
The other defendants included prominent barrister Margaret Ng, 73; and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, 64; Albert Ho, 69; Leung Kwok-hung, 65; and Cyd Ho, 66. Two others, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung, 67, had earlier pleaded guilty.
A small group of supporters displayed banners outside the West Kowloon court building, including one that read "Oppose Political Persecution".
"Peaceful assembly is not a crime," shouted Leung Kwok-hung as he entered the court.
The judge rejected a request by the prosecution to keep the nine in custody, and granted them bail pending sentencing.
During the trial, defence lawyers argued that freedom of assembly is a constitutional right in Hong Kong, and noted that police had approved the peaceful demonstration in the city's downtown Victoria Park, which grew into an unauthorised march as numbers swelled into the hundreds of thousands.
The prosecution argued that the freedom of assembly isn't absolute in Hong Kong.
Critics, including Western governments, have condemned the arrests of Lee and other democrats amid the ongoing crackdown. 47 other high-profile democratic campaigners are facing subversion charges under the national security law, and have mostly been denied bail and are being held in detention.
The U.S. said on Wednesday that Hong Kong does not warrant preferential treatment under the Hong Kong Policy Act, a law that had allowed Washington to maintain a special relationship with the city.