A HONG KONG court has sentenced five speech therapists to nearly two years in prison for their role in the publication of children’s books deemed seditious.

The penalties are the latest sign of China’s hard line against free speech and any sign of political opposition in the city following the 2019 anti-government protests.

Beijing responded to the months-long demonstrations by imposing a sweeping National Security Law and disqualifying, imprisoning or silencing political opponents, many of whom have sought asylum abroad.

The five defendants have already been jailed for more than a year and may be eligible for early release under the terms of the 19-month sentence handed down on Saturday. 

They had pleaded not guilty but were convicted of sedition on Wednesday after they printed a series of children’s books about sheep and wolves that a court said was aimed at inciting hatred against authorities.

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The clampdown has led to criticism that China’s ruling Communist Party has reneged on a 1997 pledge when British sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred to China to retain the city’s freedoms – including free speech.

Hong Kong authorities have purged and imprisoned politicians and teachers associated with the pro-democracy camp, shut down newspapers and pulled publications and artworks seen as critical of the Communist Party, which brooks no opposition.

Recent days have also seen the arrest of Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, for allegedly refusing to provide identification while reporting a news story about housing.