Hong Kong court sentences speech therapists to 19 months in prison for ‘seditious’ children’s books

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On Wednesday, Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Marco Fong were convicted of “conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications”.

Judge WK Kwok called defendants’ actions ‘a brainwashing exercise to guide very young children to accept their views and values, i.e. (Beijing) has no sovereignty on (Hong Kong)”.

Yeung said in court on Saturday that his “only regret was that he didn’t publish more picture books before his arrest,” according to court documents.

The charges relate to a set of books telling the stories of a village of sheep resisting a pack of wolves invading their home – a story which government prosecutors say was intended to provoke scorn from local and central government. Chinese in Beijing.

In one book, wolves attempted to take over a village and eat the sheep, in another, 12 sheep are forced to leave their village after being targeted by wolves, which the court said made referring to the case where 12 Hong Kong activists tried to flee. the city in Taiwan as fugitives, but were intercepted by Chinese law enforcement.

In a ruling on Wednesday, a Hong Kong District Court judge sided with the prosecution, expressing his opinion that the footage had a correlation to events in the city, and concluding that the perpetrators had the intention “to sow hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection”. against local and central government, or both.

“By identifying the government (of the People’s Republic of China) as wolves… children will be led to believe that (the government of the PRC) is coming to Hong Kong with the evil intention of taking away their home and ruining their happy life with no right to do it at all,” Judge Kwok Wai Kin wrote in a 67-page document outlining his thoughts on the verdict.

“The publishers of the books clearly refuse to acknowledge that (China) has resumed exercising sovereignty over (Hong Kong),” Kwok wrote in his decision, referring to the transfer of Hong Kong, a 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, amid a greater crackdown on civil liberties as part of Beijing’s response to large-scale anti-government protests by several months in 2019.

These protests, which were sparked in response to a bill that could send Hong Kongers to trial for crimes across the border, grew into a wider pro-democracy movement that was also linked to the popular concern over Beijing’s growing influence in the semi-autonomous city.

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The defense of the defendants, who were all members of the executive council of the defunct General Union of Speech-Language Pathologists in Hong Kong, had argued that the charges against them were unconstitutional, as they were incompatible with their freedoms of expression protected by Hong Kong. right.

But Kwok, who is also one of a small cohort of judges hand-picked by the city leader to hear cases related to national security, dismissed that challenge, saying instead that limited restrictions on freedom of expression were necessary for the protection of national security. and public order.

In a document outlining the reasons for the guilty verdict, Kwok disputed that the books were merely fables promoting universal values, another argument raised by the defense, pointing to a foreword in one of the books that makes reference to an “anti-legislation movement” in 2019 and the “One country, two systems” mechanism governing Hong Kong’s relations with the mainland.

The case came to public notice after their arrest, when police accused the group in a Tweet of ‘coating the illegal acts of protesters’ and ‘glorifying fugitives on the run’, with officials raising concerns specific given that the target audience was children. Beijing and local leaders have sought to foster national pride among Hong Kong’s youth, including by strengthening national education in local curricula.

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The verdict sparked an outcry from rights advocates. Human Rights Watch, in a statement, accused the Hong Kong government of using the “widespread” sedition law “to criminalize minor offenses of expression.”

“Hong Kongers used to read about the absurd prosecution of people in mainland China for writing political allegories, but now it’s happening in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human. Rights Watch in a statement. “Hong Kong authorities should reverse this dramatic decline in freedoms and quash the convictions of the five children’s book authors.”

In July, the United Nations Human Rights Committee also called on Hong Kong to repeal its colonial-era Sedition Law, expressing concern over its use to limit the “legitimate right to freedom of expression” of the citizens.

In a response, the government said the use of the law was “not intended to silence the expression of opinion which is only genuine criticism against the government based on objective facts”.

The law, part of a 1938 Crimes Ordinance unused for decades, was revived alongside Beijing’s introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong in 2020, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist activities – with a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Last year, a court ruled that parts of the original sedition law that referred to the monarch could be converted to references to the central government or the Hong Kong government. A conviction carries a maximum sentence of two years.

Other recent cases include the sentencing of a 75-year-old activist to nine months in prison for planning to protest against the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year. Last month, two men were arrested on suspicion of breaking the law in connection with a Facebook group they allegedly ran.

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