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Li Kwai-wah, senior superintendent of Police National Security Department, holds three children's books that revolve around a village of sheep which has to deal with wolves from a different village, in Hong Kong, on July 22.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

A series of Hong Kong children’s books that depicted sheep battling wolves as an allegory about the region’s relationship with China were seditious and provoked hatred of the government, a judge ruled this week.

On Saturday, five creators of The Guardians of Sheep Village – Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Marco Fong – were sentenced to 19 months in prison under a law dating to the British colonial era.

The books, published between 2020 and 2021, drew on events from Hong Kong’s recent history, depicting pro-democracy protesters as sheep, and the local and Chinese authorities as wolves. They were published by the now defunct General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, of which the five defendants were executive committee members.

In his ruling Wednesday, Justice Kwok Wai-kin dismissed the defence’s argument that the books “were simply children’s tales or fables” and advocated for universal values.

He ruled the three books were seditious, not merely for their content, but also “the proscribed effects intended in the mind of the children” who read them.

“They will be told that in fact, they are the sheep, and the wolves who are trying to harm them are the PRC Government and the Hong Kong Government,” said Mr. Kwok, who is on a panel of national security judges selected by the city’s leader.

Referencing large-scale anti-government protests in 2019, he added there was “a strong pressing need to safeguard national security” in Hong Kong to “prevent riots and civil unrests of any magnitude from happening again.”

“The political situation appears to be calm on the surface but is very volatile underneath.”

Speaking in court on Saturday, Ms. Yeung said she had no regrets “for standing with the sheep.” Her colleague, Mr. Ng, said the books “recorded courageous acts for a just cause.”

Mr. Kwok sentenced each of the defendants to 19 months in prison. Having already spent over a year behind bars awaiting trial, they should be eligible for early release in coming months.

Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, called the prosecution “absurd” and compared it with repression on the mainland.

In a statement, HRW said Hong Kong prosecutors have used the “archaic, overly broad crime” of sedition – which was last amended in the 1970s and refers to crimes against “against the person of Her Majesty” – to “clamp down on peaceful dissent.”

Not implemented since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from British rule, sedition was dusted off as a charge in 2020 after the introduction of a national security law that criminalized secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces. The law also created new powers for police and prosecutors, which a court soon ruled also applied to sedition cases.

Since then, 13 people have been charged with sedition. Earlier this year, pro-democracy activist and radio host Tam Tak-chi was sentenced to 40 months in prison after a judge ruled his criticism of the national security law and Chinese government as seditious.

In July, terminally ill activist Koo Sze-yiu, 75, was jailed for nine months for sedition for a protest he planned – but did not carry out – around this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.

That month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee urged Hong Kong to scrap the law and refrain from using prosecutions to “suppress the expression of critical and dissenting opinions.”

Saturday’s sentencing of the speech therapists followed days after police in Hong Kong arrested Ronson Chan, head of the city’s journalist union, on public disorder charges. Mr. Chan was a former editor at the now defunct Stand News, which was forced to close after multiple senior staff were arrested on sedition charges.

With a report from Reuters

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