STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong publisher, received a one-year prison sentence today. Eight other veteran pro-democracy activists have also been sentenced, charged with participating in protests against the government back in 2019. NPR's Emily Feng is covering the story from Beijing. Hi there, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: I just want to remember - this is a guy who's been on the program who insisted on using his freedom of speech and was once a powerful man in Hong Kong. What's he been sentenced for?
FENG: He's still a powerful man. But these nine people, including Mr. Lai, have been sentenced for participating in two peaceful protests in August 2019. But they're accused of straying beyond the area that police authorized. And these protests were part of much bigger anti-government demonstrations that ripped through the Hong Kong region throughout much of 2019 and even into last year until the pandemic put a halt to the protests. About 10,000 people have been arrested for participating in those demonstrations. But what's notable about these nine people, including Mr. Lai, sentenced today is eight of them are above the age of 60. So these are really well-respected senior figures in Hong Kong's political landscape.
INSKEEP: Who are some of the other people, then?
FENG: There's Margaret Ng, who's 73, and Martin Lee, 82, both very famous lawyers who both got suspended sentences of 12 and 11 months, meaning they won't see time behind bars if they don't commit future crimes. All those sentenced except for Mr. Lai are former lawmakers. And these are people who are highly influential. They helped found political parties. They helped found businesses or, in Mr. Lai's case, a media empire. But these are people who Beijing is targeting now. And these nine people, though some of them are behind bars, they still tried to rally people today before the sentencing even though the number of activists like them outside of prison is dwindling. Here's Martin Lee speaking outside the courtroom today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARTIN LEE: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: He's saying, "my spirits are peaceful. I slept well last night. The most important thing is to continue to have hope. And as long as there is hope, everything will succeed." So he remains optimistic. Mr. Lai, the publisher, though, is likely to have it much worse because this is just the first of several sentences he faces. He's been arrested four times in the last year on eight separate charges.
INSKEEP: Wow. And so what are the prospects for people like him who are - I mean, it's an older generation. It's a generation that remembers what the deal was supposed to be with Hong Kong when it went back to China.
FENG: Well, Mr. Lai says to many of his associates he knew he was going to be imprisoned one day. He still faces an outstanding fraud charge. He has two outstanding charges for helping another activist flee the region. And most seriously, he has two charges for, quote, "colluding with foreign powers" by asking foreign governments like the U.S. to sanction China regarding Hong Kong. This certainly means many more years in prison for Mr. Lai. I talked to Mark Simon, who is Mr. Lai's longtime business associate. Simon's in Taiwan because he actually faces criminal charges in Hong Kong.
MARK SIMON: The concern that I have is we are now entering into a mainland-type sentencing system. In other words, it's just the permanence of charges multiplied by consecutive sentences.
FENG: Lai actually released a letter in which he told followers, this is the time for us to stand tall.
INSKEEP: What do these sentences mean for the other 10,000 people who've been arrested.
FENG: It's a sign of how they might be tried. I mean, these people are out on bail. But they haven't seen the inside of a courtroom yet. And then there are about 100 other people who have been charged under a much more serious national security law, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison if they're found guilty.
INSKEEP: NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng. Thanks, as always.
FENG: Thanks, Steve.
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