A Hong Kong court has found five speech therapists guilty of sedition over a series of illustrated children’s books that portrayed the city’s democracy supporters as sheep defending their village from wolves.
Prosecutors alleged the three picture books, which sought to explain Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement to youngsters, spread “separatism”, and stirred up ‘”hatred” and opposition to the government.
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Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Marco Fong, aged between 25 and 28 and all members of a speech therapists union, had pleaded not guilty.
They chose not to testify during the trial or summon any witnesses when proceedings began in July.
Their lawyers argued that the sedition offence was vaguely defined and that each reader should be allowed to make up their own mind about what the characters in the books represent.
They also warned that a guilty verdict would further criminalise political criticism and have a chilling effect on society.
It is the first time that the case of a seditious publication has gone to trial since the protests that rocked the territory in 2019 and Beijing’s imposition of a national security law the following year. The sedition law, which dates from colonial times, had not been used since 1967 before it was revived in the wake of the mass protests.
The charges relate to three books aimed at children aged between four and seven years old: The Guardians of Sheep Village, The 12 Heroes of Sheep Village, and The Garbage Collectors of Sheep Village.
Their plots relate to several real-life events, including the 2019 protests, a failed attempt by a group of 12 protesters to flee to Taiwan by speedboat, and a strike by medical workers at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic calling for Hong Kong to seal its border with China.
In a written summary released on Wednesday, District Court Judge Kwok Wai Kin said all three books were seditious, not merely from the words “but from the words with the proscribed effects intended in the mind of the children”.
“They will be told that in fact, they are the sheep, and the wolves who are trying to harm them are the PRC (People’s Republic of China) Government and the Hong Kong Government,” wrote Kwok, who is on a panel of national security judges selected by the city’s leader.
The five will be sentenced on Saturday. The sedition law carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.
In a statement in response to the verdict, Amnesty International’s China campaigner Gwen Lee described the conviction as an “absurd example of the disintegration of human rights in the city.
“Writing books for children is not a crime, and attempting to educate children about recent events in Hong Kong’s history does not constitute an attempt to incite rebellion.”
Before the imposition of the security law, Hong Kong enjoyed considerable freedom of expression and was home to a vibrant media and publishing industry.
But the sweeping crackdown in the wake of the 2019 protests has forced many outlets to close, including the hugely popular tabloid Apple Daily, while books have been removed from libraries, and school curriculums were rewritten to include lessons on the security law for children as young as six.
Many pro-democracy activists and politicians are either in jail, awaiting trial or have fled overseas, and dozens of civil society groups, including multiple trade unions, have closed down.
Only people deemed “patriots” are allowed to hold office in Hong Kong.