Jimmy Lai Photograph:( AFP )
Lai was among nine of Hong Kong's most prominent democracy campaigners found guilty of organising and participating in a 2019 rally
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai will serve 12 months in prison for taking part in an unauthorised assembly during the 2019 mass pro-democracy protests in the Chinese-ruled financial hub.
Organisers say 1.7 million people, almost one-quarter of Hong Kong's population, turned out for a huge rally that formed the backbone of demonstrations that wracked the city throughout 2019.
Lai was among nine of Hong Kong's most prominent democracy campaigners found guilty of organising and participating in the rally.
Many of them have spent decades advocating non-violence in their ultimately fruitless campaign for universal suffrage.
Lai, 73, was on Friday sentenced to 12 months in prison while four of the other campaigners were jailed for between eight and 18 months.
Among the other defendants was Martin Lee, 82, a respected barrister known as the "father of democracy" in Hong Kong, who was once chosen by Beijing to help write the city's mini-constitution.
They also included Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old barrister, and former opposition lawmaker.
Lee and Ng were given prison terms, but their sentences were suspended.
The rallies in 2019 often descended into clashes between riot police and a knot of hardcore participants and posed the most concerted challenge to China's rule since the former British colony's 1997 handover.
But China and the city government successfully silenced the democracy movement with a sweeping crackdown featuring a national security law that criminalises dissent.
They have also pressed a radical overhaul of the city's electoral system to ensure only "patriots" are members of the legislature.
Amnesty International Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra said Friday's sentencings highlighted the government's determination to eliminate all opposition.
"Having arrested the majority of Hong Kong’s most prominent dissidents using the repressive national security law, the authorities are now mopping up remaining peaceful critics under the pretext of bogus charges related to the 2019 protests," Mishra said.
Before delivering the sentences, judge Amanda Woodcock said the rally was "premeditated" to "circumvent" a police ban.
She also said the fact the rally was peaceful was no defence.
"The Basic Law guarantees freedom of assembly and procession however these rights are not absolute and are subject to restrictions," Woodcock said.
Supporters of the defendants rose and waved to the nine in court as they were taken away after the sentencing.
"Support you until the last," the supporters chanted.
In comments to the court before the sentencing, Ng maintained a defiant tone.
"There is no right so precious to the people of Hong Kong as the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly," said Ng, who discharged her legal team and gave her statement in person.
She added that she was prepared to stand with and stand up for the people who "in the last resort, had to give collective expression of their anguish and urge the government to respond".
"I stand the law's good servant but the people's first," said Ng, whose submission ended with a round of loud applause in the courtroom.
"I'm ready for the sentencing and I'm proud that I can walk with the people of HK in this road for democracy," former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said outside court ahead of the hearing.
"We'll walk together through the storm even in darkness."
Lee was sentenced to 12 months in jail.
Lee and Jimmy Lai had pleaded guilty to taking part in another illegal assembly on August 31, 2019.
(With input from agencies)