Hong Kong protests: Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai charged over August 31 march and alleged intimidation of reporter at 2017 vigil
- Apple Daily founder will appear at Eastern Court on May 5 along with former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum
- They are accused of knowingly joining an illegal assembly on August 31, violating the Public Order Ordinance
The 71-year-old founder of the tabloid-style Apple Daily will appear at Eastern Court on May 5 along with former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, who were also arrested on Friday morning, over their involvement in a march on August 31 last year, one of several mass demonstrations held during the unrest sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
Lai, Lee and Yeung were released on police bail at noon, after being detained at different police stations from around 7am.
They are accused of knowingly joining an illegal assembly on August 31, violating the Public Order Ordinance. Criminal lawyers said the move to charge the trio could be a “test case” to pave the way for more arrests in the future. More than 6,000 people have been arrested in connection with the anti-government protests, which broke out last June, including high-profile activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and several lawmakers.
Officers with search warrants also went to the trio’s homes on Friday morning to collect clothing worn on the day of the August 31 rally.
Lai did not respond to inquiries when leaving Kowloon City Police Station, but his top aide and allies in the opposition camp were critical of the timing of the arrest.
Yeung said he had no regrets but expressed concern that more arrests would come.
“Freedom of procession is a fundamental right, especially when we don’t have full democracy,” he said. “I thought the government should be focused on fighting the epidemic, but it seems it will not let go of what happened last year.”
He stressed that the rally was peaceful, and participants only sang hymns and chanted slogans.
Lawmaker and fellow Democratic Party member Andrew Wan Siu-kin said: “The three were not even organisers. This is clearly political persecution.”
Acting senior superintendent Wong Tung-kwong of the Hong Kong Island regional crime unit later confirmed police arrested three Hong Kong men aged between 63 and 72 on suspicion of taking part in an illegal assembly in Wan Chai on August 31 last year, while one of them was also arrested over a criminal intimidation case on Hong Kong Island on June 4, 2017.
But Wong did not give details of the three suspects.
Protesters gathered in different areas of the city regardless that day, before clashes broke out on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.
In the evening, police made arrests at Prince Edward railway station, where they were accused of using excessive force when they stormed a stationary train.
Online materials promoting the rally highlighted a provision of the Public Order Ordinance, which states assemblies exclusively held for religious purposes do not require police approval.
But a police source said: “What happened that day was a procession. The people were marching on the streets. It was not a public meeting nor gathering as cited in the above mentioned law.
“Moreover, we have received legal advice from the Department of Justice, which gave the green light for the arrests.”
Criminal barrister Billy Li On-yin said the trio being charged could be a test case for others who joined similar rallies.
“If they can be convicted, I expect more people can be arrested,” Li said.
But former deputy director of public prosecutions John Reading and Li both questioned whether the defendants could claim the entire rally was a religious activity. Reading said if they chanted other slogans at the gathering it “may render that unlawful, because that’s not exclusively [a religious purpose]”.
The extradition bill protests later morphed into a broader anti-government movement fuelled by allegations of police brutality and the push for greater democracy.
Lai is a publishing tycoon known for his brash business style as well as his anti-Beijing activism, which is often reflected in Apple Daily.
He was a vocal participant in the Occupy protests of 2014 and remained a strong supporter of the recent anti-government protests.
Meanwhile, a group of 20 people gathered in Kwun Tong during lunchtime on Friday to remember the police raid of Prince Edward MTR station and the arrest of protesters there on August 31.
The crowd wrote memo, played the protest anthem and shouted anti-government slogans, while around 10 police officers stood guard outside the playground.
The protesters dispersed at around 1.30 pm.
Additional reporting by Christy Leung