Five Hong Kong democracy activists have said they plan to plead guilty to charges of "illegal assembly" after they attended a vigil in Victoria Park marking the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in June 2020.
Former lawmaker Eddie Chu, jailed activist Joshua Wong, and district councilors Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen, and Jannelle Leung made their pleas known to the judge ahead of a court hearing on Friday.
A small group of supporters gathered outside West Kowloon Magistrate's Court, chanting: "Protest political persecution! Mourn the innocent dead of June 4th!"
The five defendants face charges related to "illegal assembly" along with 19 others, including former Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai, Lee Cheuk-yan of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, and jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai.
Lester Shum told reporters after the hearing that the guilty plea was a bid to speed up legal proceedings, which could otherwise drag out for much longer.
"Our lawyers were instructed to enter guilty pleas today," Shum said. "We want to get this over with as soon as possible, and have more time for other things."
Joshua Wong is currently serving jail time for a separate offense, while Jimmy Lai and Wu Chi-wai have been remanded in custody to await trial.
The socially distanced candlelight vigil went ahead last year, defying a police ban, ostensibly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
'Lighting candles not a crime'
Defendant Lee Cheuk-yan said charges of illegal assembly were themselves in breach of Hong Kong people's right to freedom of association.
"The Hong Kong Alliance [in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China] and many other people lit candles in Victoria Park, to remember the innocent dead of June 4, 1989 once again," Lee told reporters.
"The act of lighting candles is not a crime, and people have an absolute right to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre," he said.
Lee added: "Everyone knows that the human rights situation in Hong Kong has been deteriorating. A total of 97 people have been arbitrarily arrested since the national security law took effect [on July 1, 2020]."
His comments came as the Hong Kong government announced plans to hold the city's primary and secondary schools responsible for any acts deemed to be in breach of the draconian national security law by their students.
Schools may be held responsible
Education secretary Kevin Yeung said schools that fail to act or report obvious breaches of the national security law on their premises could themselves be held responsible under new guidelines on national security education.
"We do not wish to see political propaganda in our schools, because it undermines the peaceful and stable environment that students need in order to learn," Yeung said. "It has nothing to do with freedom of speech."
"There are many topics that can be discussed in school, but freedom of speech doesn't exist without some boundaries," he said.
The Education Bureau this week issued guidelines to all schools in Hong Kong on "national security education," which will start with children as young as six.
The guidelines ban activities like chanting slogans and forming human chains, which were a feature of the 2019 protest movement and included schoolchildren, and calls on schools to call the police if they see such things occurring.
Yeung also warned that the protest slogan "Free Hong Kong! Revolution now!" is banned in schools, saying teachers should be trained to understand what actions breach the law, which criminalizes peaceful protest criticism of the city government, as well as of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The government is also planning to replace Liberal Studies, a secondary-school critical thinking program blamed by the CCP for fueling recent protest movements, with a "national education" program teaching children to appreciate China's achievements under CCP rule.
Reported by Lau Siu Fung and Cheng Yut Yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.