Hong Kong pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations have condemned the jailing of three prominent activists for their role in anti-China protests in the semi-autonomous territory, as Beijing continues its crackdown on political dissidents.
Pro-democracy leaders Joshua Wong, 24; Agnes Chow, 23; and Ivan Lam, 26, were jailed Wednesday for between 7 and 13.5 months for their roles in anti-government rallies over the past year.
These are the most significant sentences for pro-democracy leaders since protests erupted last summer against China’s political and legal encroachment into Hong Kong.
All three pleaded guilty to charges. Around 100 supporters gathered outside the court ahead of the sentencing, as did a smaller number of pro-Beijing demonstrators calling for harsh sentences.
Pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations were quick to condemn the sentences, which they characterized as the Chinese Communist Party’s latest effort to crush legitimate political opposition and destroy the “one country, two systems” arrangement that has afforded Hong Kong more freedom that the mainland since it transitioned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
In a statement sent to Newsweek, Samuel Chu—the managing director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council—said: “Beijing and Carrie Lam are using the court to make an example [of the protest leaders and send the message]: ‘Obey or spend the best part of your youth behind bars.’”
“The CCP is ready and willing to maintain control and power at all costs, even if it means imprisoning and wiping out a whole generation of Hong Kongers,” Chu said. “I am heartbroken and indignant at the treatment and immediate future of the trio—and thousands of activists like them.”
“But as Wong wrote this week from jail—’Cages cannot lock up souls’ and the movement only grows stronger every time an activist is arrested, convicted, and jailed. HKDC condemns the harsh sentences and urges the United States and the international community to do the same.”
Nathan Law—who co-founded the now-shuttered Demosisto pro-democracy organization alongside Wong and Chow—told Newsweek the sentences are “devastating.”
Law now lives in London, having fled Hong Kong after a draconian national security law, criminalizing anti-government dissent and threatening violators with life imprisonment, was passed this summer.
“It’s an absurdly heavy sentence and the independence of the judiciary system is in doubt,” Law said. “It shows that the court once again become the suppression tool in favor to the authorities and the authority is determined to imprison prominent activists to set an example.”
Chow still faces additional charges under the national security law, accused of colluding with foreign powers; a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Chow told Newsweek in June: “It’s never easy to fight against such a strong and powerful regime. But I really want to stay here and do something… It might be our last fight.”
So broad is the national security law that more charges against all three could follow. Hong Kong’s courts are currently clogged with cases against protesters. “Sentences could pile up,” Law said. “To be honest, I have no idea when the trio could step out of the prison.”
“I hope the international community could voice against this unjust sentencing and demand Immediate release of the trio,” Law told Newsweek. “As Joshua said before he left the courtroom—it’s not the end of the fight. We all have to stick to our roles and resist. It’s time to speak up for Hong Kong more actively.”
Human rights groups are also pushing back against China’s prosecution of pro-democracy activists. Amnesty International released a statement from its Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra reading: “Once again, the government has used the politically-motivated charge of ‘inciting others to protest’ to prosecute people who have merely spoken out and protested peacefully.”
“By targeting well-known activists from Hong Kong’s largely leaderless protest movement, authorities are sending a warning to anyone who dares openly criticize the government that they could be next.”