HONG KONG -- Nine prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures, including outspoken media tycoon Jimmy Lai, were sentenced on Friday to between eight months and 18 months in prison for organizing and participating in an unauthorized protest in 2019, as the local government continued its monthslong crackdown on political dissent.
The peaceful protest took place on Aug. 18, 2019, amid citywide anti-government rallies against a now-withdrawn extradition bill and to demand full democracy in Hong Kong. The demonstration's organizer said 1.7 million people took part in the protest, but police estimates were considerably lower.
Lai's fellow defendants included Martin Lee, founder of the city's Democratic Party and popularly known as Hong Kong's "father of democracy," and former lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Cyd Ho Sau-lan, Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung.
Lai, the founder of the Apple Daily newspaper and a longtime critic of Beijing, was sentenced to one year. Also on Friday, he was charged with two additional offenses: conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice under the national security law.
He currently is faced with six criminal cases and had to attend four court hearings on Friday, including a fraud charge and collusion with foreign forces under the security law.
Leung Kwok-hung received the longest sentence on Friday -- 18 months. He also has been charged with subversion under the national security law for taking part in an opposition primary poll. Both of their charges under the security law carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Four of the defendants -- Martin Lee, Albert Ho, Leung Yiu-chung and Ng -- had their sentences, ranging from eight to 12 months, suspended.
Speaking before the hearing began in West Kowloon Court on Friday morning, Martin Lee told reporters that it was important for the people of Hong Kong to "hold onto their hopes," adding: "If we have hope, we can succeed in all things."
In a statement submitted to the court on Friday, Ng -- a former legislator and a barrister -- said when the court "applies a law which takes away the fundamental rights, the confidence in the courts and judicial independence is shaken," adding that she stands as "the law's good servant, but the people's first."
Consular representatives from the European Union, the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden also attended the hearing.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said Friday's sentencing is equivalent to "sentencing democracy, free speech and the rule of law."
Those sentenced "will remain the conscience of Hong Kong regardless of whatever bogus charges the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities bring against them," Richardson wrote in a statement.
Judge Amanda Woodcock handed down the sentences to the defendants, whose ages range from 33 to 82.
Three of the nine activists convicted -- Lai, Martin Lee and Albert Ho -- previously were named by Chinese state media as part of a "Gang of Four" responsible for widespread protests in 2019 in Hong Kong. The fourth is former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, who last year said that she would step back from "political engagement."
The "Gang of Four" label is a reference to four radical Chinese leaders who were blamed for the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In a separate case heard on Friday, Lai was sentenced to eight months in jail for participating in an unauthorized assembly on Aug. 31, 2019, which later escalated into violent clashes between police and protesters. Lai will serve a total of 14 months in prison, as the two sentences will be served mostly concurrently.
Meanwhile, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, former chairman of the Democratic Party, also were convicted in the Aug. 31 case. They were sentenced, respectively, to six months and eight months, but Yeung's sentence was suspended.
It remains unclear whether the defendants will appeal their sentences.