(CNN) – A Hong Kong court on Saturday sentenced five speech therapists to 19 months in prison over children’s books deemed seditious, in a case human rights advocates say is a major blow to freedom of expression amid tightening civil liberties on Chinese soil.
On Wednesday, Laurie Lai, Melody Young, Sydney Ng, Samuel Chan and Marco Fong were convicted of “conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.”
Judge’s description. K. Kwok accused the actions of “brainwashing with the aim of instructing very young children to accept their views and values, that is, (Beijing) has no sovereignty over (Hong Kong)”.
Young said in court on Saturday that her “only regret is that she did not publish more picture books prior to her arrest,” according to court documents.
The charges center on a set of books that tell the stories of a village of sheep resisting a pack of wolves invading their home – a story that government prosecutors have claimed is intended to provoke contempt for the local government and the Chinese central government in Beijing.
In one book, wolves attempted to take over a village and eat the sheep, and in another, 12 sheep were forced to leave their village after being targeted by wolves, which the court believed alluded to a case in which 12 Hong Kong activists tried to escape. From the city to Taiwan Harbin, but they were intercepted by Chinese law enforcement authorities.
In a ruling issued on Wednesday, a Hong Kong District Court judge sided with the prosecution, expressing his view that the images were related to events in the city, and finding that the authors had an intent to “bring hatred, contempt or indignation” against the local and central government, or both.
“By identifying the (People’s Republic of China) government as wolves… will lead the children to believe that (the People’s Republic of China government) are coming to Hong Kong with the evil intention of taking their home and destroying their happy life with no right to do so at all,” Judge Kwok Wai wrote. Kin in a 67-page document outlining his thinking on the ruling.
“The book publishers clearly refuse to acknowledge that (China) has resumed the exercise of sovereignty over (Hong Kong),” Kwok wrote in his decision, referring to the transfer of Hong Kong, the former British colony, to Chinese rule in 1997.
The case has become a proxy for looming questions about the limits of free speech in the city, as it comes amid a larger crackdown on civil liberties as part of Beijing’s response to large-scale anti-government protests in 2019.
Those protests, which erupted in response to a proposed bill that could send Hong Kong residents to trial for cross-border crimes, have morphed into a larger pro-democracy movement that has also been linked to popular concern about Beijing’s growing influence in the Arabian Peninsula. independent city.
Defense for the defendants, who were all members of the executive board of the dissolved General Federation of Speech Therapists of Hong Kong, argued that the charges against them were unconstitutional, as it interfered with their freedoms of expression protected under Hong Kong. Law.
But Kwok, who is also one of a small group of judges chosen by the city leader to hear cases related to national security, rejected the challenge, saying instead that limited restrictions on free speech are necessary to protect national security and public order.
In a document outlining the reasons for the guilty verdict, Kwok contested that the books were mere myths promoting universal values, another argument raised by the defense, pointing to an introduction in one of the books referring to an “anti-legislative movement” in 2019 and the “one country, two systems” mechanism that governs Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland.
The case was brought into the public eye after their arrest, when the police accused the group in a tweet of “covering the illegal actions of protesters” and “glorifying fugitives”, with officials raising specific concerns given that the target audience was children. Beijing and local leaders have sought to encourage national pride among Hong Kong’s youth, including by promoting patriotic education in local curricula.
The ruling was met with protest from human rights defenders. In a statement, Human Rights Watch accused the Hong Kong government of using the “extremely broad” sedition law to “punish minor speech offenses”.
“Hong Kong residents used to read about the absurd pursuit of people in mainland China for writing political symbols, but this is now happening in Hong Kong,” Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Hong Kong authorities should reverse this dramatic decline in freedoms and rescind the conviction of the five children’s book authors.”
In July, the UN Human Rights Committee also called on Hong Kong to repeal the colonial era sedition law, saying it was concerned about its use to limit citizens’ “legitimate right to freedom of expression”.
In a response, the government said the use of the law “was not intended to silence the expression of any opinion that constitutes genuine criticism of the government based on objective facts”.
The law, part of the 1938 Crimes Ordinance that hasn’t been used for decades, has been revived along with Beijing’s passage of the Hong Kong National Security Law in 2020, which targets secession, subversion, and complicity with foreign forces and terrorist activities — with a maximum prison sentence of life. life. in prison.
Last year, a court ruled that parts of the original sedition law referring to the king could be converted to references to the central government or the Hong Kong government. The conviction penalty is up to a maximum of two years.
Other recent cases included the sentencing of a 75-year-old activist to nine months in prison for plotting to protest the Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this year. Last month, two men were arrested on suspicion of breaking the law in connection with a Facebook group they said they ran.
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