Two plead guilty in trial of nine HK democracy activists charged with illegal assembly

Au Nok-hin speaks after the primary election in Hong Kong
Former Hong Kong democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin speaks after the primary election aimed at selecting democracy candidates for the September election, in Hong Kong, China July 12, 2020. REUTERS/Lam Yik

HONG KONG, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Two Hong Kong pro-democracy activists pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges related to an illegal assembly during mass anti-government protests in August 2019, while seven others, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, pleaded not guilty.

The 2019 protests, fuelled by a perception Beijing was curbing the wide-ranging freedoms promised to the former British colony upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the handover.

The rally in August 2019 was estimated to have drawn more than 1 million people, despite heavy rain, and provided a respite from the clashes between protesters and police seen often at demonstrations in the months before and after.

Former pro-democracy politician and activist Au Nok-hin pleaded guilty to organising and knowingly taking part in an unauthorised assembly, while Leung Yiu-chung, another activist, pleaded guilty to participating in an illegal assembly.

Leung and Au will hear the verdict on March 22.

The other seven activists on trial, including prominent Beijing critic Lai, Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, and veteran activists Lee Cheuk-yan, and Leung Kwok-hung, known as Long Hair, pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The latter two shouted "Object to political prosecution!" when making the plea.

Beijing has responded to the 2019 protests by imposing a sweeping national security law in June last year, punishing anything China deems as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

Since the introduction of the law, the government has disqualified opposition politicians and jailed activists, while authorities have banned slogans, songs and pro-democracy political activity in schools.

Lai has been in custody since December and is scheduled for another court appearance on Thursday for his appeal against an earlier decision to deny him bail in relation to charges of colluding with foreign forces.

Reporting by Jessie Pang; Writing by Marius Zaharia. Editing by Gerry Doyle

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