The Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal refused on Thursday to grant four pro-democracy protesters—Kwok Wing-kin, Mak Tak-ching, Lee Cheuk-yan and Stanley Ho Wai-hong—leave to appeal their convictions over violating public gathering limits. Judge Roberto Ribeiro rejected their appeal by finding that the regulation which they violated is no longer in force and of general importance.
The four protesters were sentenced to 14 days prison, which was suspended for 18 months, on March 10, 2021 for violating Section 6 of the Prevention and Control of Disease (Prohibition on Gathering) Regulation. They were found guilty as they partially constituted and participated in a prohibited group gathering that exceeded the permitted maximum of four persons per group gathering.
The charges stem from a Labor Day protest in 2020 in which the four protesters marched toward government headquarters. The march consisted of eight people in total, split into two groups of four people, each. The two groups marched with the required social distance between them, however the lower court still found they were in violation of the regulation.
Kwok, Mak, Lee and Ho sought to challenge the restriction of four persons per group gathering in applying to the Court of Final Appeal. They argued that the restriction disproportionately infringes on the freedom of demonstration and that the restriction was unconstitutional. However, Ribeiro rejected their appeal as he found that the protesters’ arguments were advanced on grounds that involved pure questions of fact or were not reasonably arguable.
In rejecting the appeal, Ribeiro wrote:
The proper construction of its provisions, whether regarding its definition of “group gathering” or any of its other sections, is no longer of any general importance, let alone of great and general importance. The prohibition no longer operates so that its constitutionality and questions of proportionality are entirely moot. There is no arguable question of any substantial and grave injustice.
The hearing in which the protesters were sentenced to 14 days prison was the first trial that involved a purported violation of the limit on group gatherings. Activist Raphael Wong, who was also sentenced to 14 days prison but did not appeal to the Court of Final Appeal, urged the court to protect the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong. He claimed that the police employed multiple standards in enforcing social distancing rules since more than 300 people participated in celebrations in Causeway Bay on April 30, 2022 but were not fined.