Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and supporters flash a three-finger salute - a symbol now being used across Asia to protest against authoritarianism - in support of protesters in Myanmar upon their arrival at the West Kowloon Magistrates Court in Hong Kong on February 16, 2021, as they go on trial for organising one of the biggest democracy protests to sweep the city in 2019.
Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and supporters flash a three-finger salute - a symbol now being used across Asia to protest against authoritarianism - in support of protesters in Myanmar upon their arrival at the West Kowloon Magistrates Court in Hong Kong on February 16, 2021, as they go on trial for organising one of the biggest democracy protests to sweep the city in 2019.
Photo: AFP

Two former Hong Kong lawmakers pleaded guilty to illegal assembly charges Tuesday, as a trial opened for them and seven other prominent democracy activists in what is seen as a crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

The activists are charged with organizing and participating in an illegal assembly during massive anti-government protests in 2019.

They include Martin Lee, an 82-year-old veteran of Hong Kong's democracy movement, and Jimmy Lai, a newspaper publisher who is being held without bail on other charges related to his pro-democracy activities.

The two who pleaded guilty were Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung, both former members of the Hong Kong legislature. Au pleaded guilty to both charges, while Leung pleaded guilty just to participating in an illegal assembly. Prosecutors dropped the organizing charge against Leung.

The other seven pleaded not guilty. The charges stem from an Aug. 18, 2019, protest.

Before the trial, supporters and several of the accused rallied outside the court. One banner read "Peaceful Assembly is Not a Crime; Shame on Political Prosecution." Lee Cheuk-yan, another former lawmaker who is among the defendants, said that the law has become an instrument of political suppression. "It is very sad to witness the deterioration of the rule of law in Hong Kong into a rule by fear," he said.

Hong Kong was rocked by months of protests in the second half of 2019, sparked by a government bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. The bill was withdrawn, but the protests expanded to include full democracy and other demands and grew increasingly violent.

The nine who appeared in court Tuesday are the first to go on trial among about 15 well-known activists who were arrested in April of last year. The arrests were condemned by the United States and other countries, which have grown increasingly at odds with China over its Hong Kong policy.

China's legislature then approved a national security law for Hong Kong in June that further clamped down on dissent. The Chinese government said the law was needed to restore order to the city after the previous year's protests. It views foreign criticism as interference in the country's internal affairs.

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