Jimmy Lai and six Hong Kong activists allowed to appeal against march convictions

Media tycoon is on trial in Hong Kong on separate charges under controversial National Security Law

Hong Kong’s top court has granted jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai and six former pro-democracy legislators leave to appeal against convictions for taking part in a banned march in 2019. The Court of Final Appeal on Friday dismissed an attempt by the city’s justice secretary to overturn a lower court’s ruling that the seven were guilty of taking part in the march but should be acquitted on a charge of organising it.

Mr Lai (76) who has been imprisoned for more than three years, is on trial in Hong Kong on separate charges under the controversial National Security Law imposed by Beijing in 2020. He is serving five years and nine months for fraud in a maximum-security prison, and he could face a life sentence if convicted in the national security trial of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces.

Friday’s decision concerns charges surrounding a demonstration in August 2019 at the height of months-long pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Mr Lai was found guilty of organising and taking part in an unauthorised assembly, as were former politicians Martin Lee, Albert Ho, Margaret Ng, Leung Kwok-hung, Lee Cheuk-yan and Cyd Ho.

But the Court of Appeal last August overturned their conviction for organising the march, saying that standing in the front row did not mean they were in charge of it. Last December, the same court granted the seven leave to appeal their convictions, saying there might be “a question of great and general importance” about whether the prosecution infringed fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law.


The Basic Law is the city’s de facto constitution, which has guaranteed certain freedoms since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. Although it is part of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong has retained its common law legal system.

The seven argue that the police ban on the August 2019 march was an excessive restriction on their freedom of expression and assembly and that they should not receive a criminal penalty for their involvement. The appeal that was given the green light on Friday is expected to consider the implications of a UK supreme court decision in 2021.

In the case of DPP v Ziegler, which concerned the rights of protesters who lay down in the road outside an arms fair in London in 2017, the supreme court ruled that a statutory defence of lawful excuse could be established if authorities had violated a protester’s basic rights. Since the crackdown that followed the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong in 2020, there have been numerous prosecutions for unauthorised assembly.

This week, the Court of First Instance upheld a 15-month prison sentence handed down to democracy activist Cjow Hang-tung for inciting others to take part in a vigil in 2021 commemorating the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Ms Chow had argued that the police unlawfully interfered with her fundamental rights in prohibiting the vigil.

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Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times