Hong Kong activists shouted slogans against the government out of court on Tuesday when more than two dozen high-profile democracy campaigners appeared during a banned vigil to mark the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers defied a ban on rallies on June 4 to mark the anniversary of Beijing’s deadly repression of students pushing for democracy.
Held in Hong Kong for the past three decades, the annual vigil usually draws huge crowds, but this year’s rally was first banned when authorities mentioned coronavirus measures – even though local transmission had largely stopped.
The group of defendants represents a wide segment of the pro-democracy movement, from 72-year-old media mogul Jimmy Lai to younger campaigners like Joshua Wong.
The 26 suspects are charged with participating or inducing others to participate in an illegal meeting. The indictment charge can carry up to five years in prison.
Activists gathered in West Kowloon Magistrates’ courts ahead of the procedural hearing to shout slogans and display banners defending their right to hold a Tiananmen vigil.
“It is not a crime to mourn June 4,” one poster read, while another said, “Fight political persecution, protest political oppression.”
Veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan, 63, told the crowd through a loudspeaker, “We must reiterate that on June 4, grieving is not a crime.”
Traditionally held in Victoria Park, the vigil has taken on special significance in recent years as the semi-autonomous city chafes under Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
“The oppression that activists endured on June 4, 1989 is very similar to what the people of Hong Kong have suffered over the past year,” added Lee.
Some of the defendants are facing separate prosecutions in connection with last year’s massive and often violent pro-democracy protests.
Chinese leaders have rejected calls to grant Hong Kongers universal suffrage, portraying the protests as a plot by foreigners to destabilize the motherland.
In late June, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law to stamp out the demonstrations once and for all.
The legislation focuses on subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign conspiracy, with sentences including life in prison.
But its broad wording – such as a ban on encouraging hatred of the Chinese government – has wrung fear into a city accustomed to expressing its views.