Nine veteran Hong Kong activists face jail after they were convicted Thursday for their roles in organising one of the biggest democracy protests to engulf the city in 2019.
The defendants included some of Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy campaigners, many of whom are non-violence advocates who have spent decades campaigning in vain for universal suffrage.
They are the latest group of democracy figures to be prosecuted as China oversees a sweeping crackdown on dissent following seven straight months of democracy protests in the financial hub.
Among them are Martin Lee, an 82-year-old barrister who was once chosen by Beijing to help write Hong Kong's mini-constitution, and Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old barrister and former opposition lawmaker.
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, currently in custody after his arrest under Beijing's new national security law, was among those convicted.
Leung Kwok-hung, an opposition politician known by his sobriquet "Long Hair" who has also been detained on national security charges, was also sent down.
Others are leading members of the Civil Human Rights Front, the coalition that organised a series of huge rallies throughout 2019.
Some struck a defiant tone outside court on Thursday morning ahead of the verdict, holding banners that read "protest political suppression".
"We are very proud even if we have to go to jail for it," Lee Cheuk-yan, a former legislator and labour leader told reporters. "We will still march on no matter what lies in the future."
Seven were found guilty of organising and knowingly participating in an unauthorised assembly. Two others had previously pleaded guilty.
They face up to five years in jail.
The United States condemned the verdicts as politically motivated and vowed to hold Chinese and Hong Kong leaders to account after earlier issuing targeted sanctions.
The convictions "once again show the degree to which the PRC and Hong Kong authorities seek to crush all forms of peaceful dissent in the city," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
"The United States continues to stand with those millions of Hong Kongers who have peacefully demonstrated to protect the autonomy and freedoms promised to them by the PRC," he said.
- Massive rally -
The group was prosecuted for organising an unauthorised assembly on August 18, 2019 -- one of the biggest in Hong Kong that year as people took to the streets calling for democracy and greater police accountability.
Organisers claimed 1.7 million people turned out -- almost one in four Hong Kong residents -- though that number was difficult to independently verify.
It was easily one of the biggest rallies that year, with dense crowds marching peacefully for hours under a sea of umbrellas and thundery skies.
Protests in Hong Kong can only go ahead with the permission of authorities and rights groups have long criticised the use of unauthorised assembly prosecutions.
British lawyer David Perry, hired by the Hong Kong government to be the lead prosecutor, stepped down following withering criticism from both the UK government and British legal bodies over his decision to take the job.
Prosecutors accused the group of defying police instructions that day and encouraging crowds to march across Hong Kong's main island, bringing traffic disruption.
In her verdict, district Judge AJ Woodcock indicated that she was inclined to go for a maximum jail sentence and said the fact the march was peaceful was no defence.
"It cannot be right for an offender to argue that although his act was unauthorised... but because it was ultimately peaceful and there was no violence he should not be arrested, prosecuted or convicted," she wrote.
The group will be sentenced on 16 April and those not already detained on separate charges were granted bail on condition they surrender their passports and remain in Hong Kong.
Since 2019, protests have been all but outlawed with authorities either refusing permission on security grounds or because of the pandemic.
The rallies 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.
The movement eventually fizzled out under the combined weight of exhaustion, some 10,000 arrests and the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities have since unleashed a broad crackdown and Beijing has imposed a new security law which criminalises much dissent.
Earlier this week Chinese leaders also passed a new law governing Hong Kong's already limited local elections.
The number of directly elected seats for the 90-seat legislature was slashed to less than a quarter while anyone wanting to stand for public office will have to be vetted by national security police and officials for their "patriotism".
China and Hong Kong's leaders say the moves are needed to restore stability to the finance hub.