By Leo Sands-BBC News
https://www.bbc.com/-Image source, Getty Images
Hong Kong police display content from one of the children’s books at a press conference in July
A Hong Kong judge has found five speech therapists guilty of publishing seditious children’s books.
Their books – about sheep trying to hold back wolves from their village – were interpreted by authorities as having an overtly political message.
After a two-month trial a government-picked national security judge said their “seditious intention” was clear.
It comes amid a crackdown on civil liberties since 2020, when China imposed a new national security law.
Beijing has said the law is needed to bring stability to the city, but critics say it is designed to squash dissent.
The law makes it easier to prosecute protesters and reduces the city’s overall autonomy, while also increasing Beijing’s influence over political and legal decision-making in the city.
The group of five speech therapists, who were founding members of a union, produced cartoon e-books that some interpreted as trying to explain Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement to children.
In one of the three books a village of sheep fight back against a group of wolves who are trying to take over their settlement.
In another one, the enemy attackers are portrayed as dirty and diseased wolves.
“The seditious intention stems not merely from the words, but from the words with the proscribed effects intended to result in the mind of children,” wrote Judge Kwok Wai-kin in his judgement, AFP news agency reports.
He said the books’ young readers would be led to believe that Chinese authorities were coming to Hong Kong with the “wicked intentions” of ruining the lives of the city’s inhabitants.
Lai Man-ling, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho, who have already spent more than a year in jail awaiting the verdict, will be sentenced in the next few days.
The group, who are aged between 25 and 28 and had pleaded not guilty, face up to two years in prison.
“In today’s Hong Kong, you can go to jail for publishing children’s books with drawings of wolves and sheep. These ‘sedition’ convictions are an absurd example of the disintegration of human rights in the city,” said Gwen Lee from rights group Amnesty International.
The group was charged under a colonial-era sedition law which until recently had been rarely used by prosecutors.
Also on Wednesday, the head of Hong Kong’s journalist union was arrested just weeks before he was due to leave the city to take up a fellowship at Oxford University.
Ronson Chan, 41, was taken away by police while reporting on a meeting of public housing owners – his employer Channel C said.
Police confirmed they had arrested an individual after he refused to show his ID and acted “uncooperatively”.