SEOUL — Five speech therapists in Hong Kong were sentenced to 19 months in prison on Saturday after they published a series of children’s books that the court said instilled a hatred of the government in young readers.
Their sentence extended a government crackdown on political dissent that began during mass protests in 2019.
The defendants — Man-ling Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Tsz-ho Fong — who were the leaders of a speech therapists’ union behind the books, have been in jail for more than a year. Because of time served, their lawyers said they were likely to released fairly soon.
The Hong Kong police’s national security department arrested them last year, accusing them of violating a colonial-era law on seditious publications.
Prosecutors said that the defendants’ series of three books, titled “Sheep Village,” about a flock of sheep resisting the tyrannical rule of a wolf pack, could “weaken” Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong by portraying the Chinese government as authoritarian.
One of the books told the story of a village of sheep that was harassed by wolves and fled in a boat, only to be captured and sent to prison. The sheep were said to represent 12 activists who were arrested at sea in 2020 while trying to escape to Taiwan during the Hong Kong protests — and the wolves by inference were the Hong Kong police.
In another book, the sheep organize to push the wolves, portrayed as littering and dangerous, out of their village. That book was released in early 2020, when Hong Kong’s opposition camp was lobbying the government to close the border with mainland China to control the spread of the coronavirus.
A court convicted the five defendants on Wednesday under the 1938 sedition law, which has not been used often in recent decades, on a joint count of “conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.” A conviction under the law carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.
Defendants had pleaded not guilty and criticized the conviction as a blow to free speech in the semiautonomous Chinese territory. “The prosecution against the union has intimidated the civil society and raised estrangement amongst Hong Kong people,” said Ms. Ng, one of the defendants.
“Rather than inciting disobedience,” Ms. Ng added, the books make children reflect on the appropriate basis of abiding by laws, “which should not be out of blind obedience and fear.”
Judge Kwok Wai-kin said in the District Court that freedom of speech can be limited if it interferes with national security.
Defense lawyers estimated that the speech therapists could be released in about a month because they had already been held for more than a year. But critics of the government said their extended pretrial detention set a bad precedent.
“This sets a rather bad example, similar to the style in mainland China,” said Fan Cheung-fung, a labor activist, suggesting that commuting their sentence would give a false appearance of tolerance after jailing the defendants for so long without a conviction.
In a statement after Wednesday’s conviction, the human rights group Amnesty International called the use of the sedition laws a “brazen act of repression,” urging the therapists’ immediate release.
“Writing books for children is not a crime,” it said, “and attempting to educate children about recent events in Hong Kong’s history does not constitute an attempt to incite rebellion.”
Austin Ramzy contributed reporting from Hong Kong.