Hong Kong jailed five speech therapists for sedition on Saturday over a series of illustrated children's books that portrayed the city's democracy supporters as sheep defending their village from wolves.
They join a growing list of residents jailed under a colonial-era sedition offence which authorities have deployed alongside a national security law introduced by Beijing in 2020 to stamp out dissent.
The group, who are all in their twenties and belonged to a speech therapists' union, have been behind bars for over a year while awaiting a verdict.
They were all handed a 19-month jail term for a picture book series that began in 2020 to explain Hong Kong's democracy movement to children. The group could be released in 31 days after deductions for time served, one of their lawyers estimated. Three of them struck a defiant tone during Saturday's sentencing.
Melody Yeung told the court she did not regret her choices and hopes to always stand on the side of the sheep. "My only regret is I couldn't publish more picture books before getting arrested."
Defendant Sidney Ng's lawyer quoted his client as saying the prosecution "had the objective effect of intimidating civil society and alienating Hong Kongers from one another". Judge Kwok Wai-kin scolded the defendents for "brainwashing" children and sowing the "seed of instability" in the city and across China.
The judge, handpicked by Hong Kong's leader from a pool of jurists to hear national security cases, had convicted the group on Wednesday for conspiring to spread seditious content.
Prosecutors had argued the books contained "anti-China sentiment" and were aimed at "inciting readers' hatred against the mainland authorities". In one book, a village of sheep fights off invading wolves, while another portrays the canines as spreading disease in the ovine hamlet.
On Saturday, the judge said the books were "a brainwashing exercise" and there was clear evidence of fear, hatred and discontent being instilled in children's minds. "Once (the children) had internalised this mindset, the seed of instability will be sowed," he said.
But the defendants maintained the books chronicled "history from the people's perspective" and were meant to help children understand systemic injustice in society. "Rather than being seditious, (the books) were recording courageous acts for a just cause," Ng said.
Amnesty International, which recently exited Hong Kong because of the national security law, described the convictions as "an absurd example of unrelenting repression". Hong Kong was a bastion of free expression within China and home to a vibrant and outspoken publishing industry.
But Beijing has unleashed a sweeping political crackdown on the city in response to huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago.
The sedition law, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail, was dormant for decades but has recently been embraced by police and prosecutors.