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

(CNN) — A court in Hong Kong on Saturday sentenced five speech therapists to 19 months in prison over children’s books deemed inflammatory, in a case that human rights defenders say represents a serious blow to freedom of expression amid a tightening of civil liberties in Chinese territory.

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

Judge WK Kwok called the defendants’ actions “a brainwashing exercise to get the very young children to accept their views and values, ie (Beijing) has no sovereignty over (Hong Kong).”

Yeung told the court on Saturday that her “only regret was that she had not published any more picture books before her arrest,” court documents said.

The indictment centers on a series of books that tell the tales of a sheep village opposing a pack of wolves invading its home – a story prosecutors have claimed should inspire contempt from the local and central Chinese governments in China provoke Beijing.

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

In a ruling on Wednesday, a Hong Kong District Court judge sided with prosecutors, expressing his view that the images were linked to events in the city, noting that the authors’ intention was to “incite hatred or contempt.” create or arouse dissatisfaction”. against local and central government, or both.

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“By identifying the (PRC) government as wolves… the children are led to believe that (the PRC government) is coming to Hong Kong with evil intentions to take their homes away from them and ruin their happy lives without any right to do anything at all ‘ Judge Kwok Wai Kin wrote in a 67-page document outlining his thoughts on the ruling.

“The books’ publishers clearly refuse to recognize that (China) is again exercising sovereignty over (Hong Kong),” Kwok wrote in his decision, referring to the handover 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, surfacing amid a wider crackdown on civil liberties as part of Beijing’s response to broad-based, month-long anti-government protests in 2019.

Those protests, sparked in response to a bill that could put Hong Kongers on trial for crimes across the border, morphed into a larger pro-democracy movement, also linked to popular concerns about Beijing’s growing influence in the semifinals. autonomous city.

The defendants’ defense, all of whom were board members of the now-defunct General Union of the Hong Kong Speech Therapists, had argued that the charges against them were unconstitutional as they were inconsistent with their freedom of expression, which is protected in Hong Kong law.

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But Kwok, who is also among a small cohort of judges handpicked by the mayor to hear national security-related cases, dismissed that challenge, instead saying limited restrictions on free speech were necessary to protect national security and public order.

In a document setting out the grounds for the guilty verdict, Kwok denied that the books were merely fables promoting universal values, another defense argument, pointing to a preface in one of the books, referring to an “anti-legislative movement” in 2019 and the “one country, two systems” mechanism governing Hong Kong’s relations with the mainland.

The case came to public attention after their arrest, when police tweeted that the group accused the group of “icing icing on unlawful acts by protesters” and “glorifying fugitive refugees,” with officials raising particular concerns because the target group was children . Beijing and local leaders have sought to encourage national pride among Hong Kong youth, including by strengthening national education in local curricula.

The verdict was greeted with outrage by legal defenders. In a statement, Human Rights Watch accused the Hong Kong government of using the “very broad” sedition law “to punish minor violations of speech.”

“Hong Kong people used to read about the absurd persecution of people in mainland China for writing political allegories, but now this is 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 liberties and overturn the convictions of the five children’s authors.”

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In July, the United Nations Human Rights Committee also called on Hong Kong to repeal its colonial-era anti-hate speech law, saying it was concerned it was being used to restrict citizens’ “legitimate right to freedom of expression”.

In a response, the government said the law’s application was “not intended to silence expressions of opinion that constitute only genuine criticism of the government based on objective facts”.

The law, part of a decades-idle 1938 crime ordinance, was revived alongside Beijing’s 2020 introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong targeting secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist activity – with a maximum sentence of life in prison.

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

Other recent cases included the sentence of a 75-year-old activist to nine months in prison for planning to protest 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 are said to have run.

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