(Reuters) – Joshua Wong, 24, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists, was jailed on Wednesday for more than 13 months over an unlawful anti-government rally in 2019, the toughest and most high-profile sentence for an opposition figure this year.
Wong’s sentence comes as critics say the Beijing-backed government is intensifying a crackdown on Hong Kong’s opposition and chipping away at wide-ranging freedoms guaranteed after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, a charge authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong reject.
Reacting to the court ruling, Britain’s foreign minister Dominic Raab urged Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to stop their campaigns to stifle the opposition.
Wong had pleaded guilty to organising and inciting an unlawful assembly near the city’s police headquarters during the height of the sometimes violent demonstrations in June last year. He faced a maximum of three years in jail.
About 100 supporters gathered quietly inside the court ahead of the sentence, while a small group of pro-Beijing people rallied outside, calling for a hefty prison sentence.
“I know the coming days will be tougher. We will hang in there,” Wong, wearing a black sweater and surgical face mask, shouted after the sentence was read out.
“It’s not the end of the fight,” Wong said later through his lawyers.
“Ahead of us is another challenging battleground. We’re now joining the battle in prison along with many brave protesters, less visible yet essential in the fight for democracy and freedom for Hong Kong.”
Wong’s long-time colleagues Agnes Chow, 23, and Ivan Lam, 26, were jailed for a total of 10 and seven months, respectively, on charges linked to the same siege when thousands of protesters surrounded the police headquarters on June 21 to demand the government withdraw a now-shelved extradition bill.
Chow, who cried inside the court room on hearing her sentence, had pleaded guilty to incitement and participation in an unlawful protest, while Lam pleaded guilty to incitement.
A familiar face at democracy protests since he was a teenager, Wong was less than a year old when Hong Kong returned to Beijing 23 years ago with a guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including freedom of speech and assembly.
China’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong on June 30 was seen as the latest blow to the city’s liberties, which are crucial for its status as a global financial hub.
“KEEP THE FAITH”
Ahead of sentencing, the district court judge read a letter from Wong’s mother to the court in which she said her son was “a young person who cares about society and is persistent in his ideals”.
Under the handover agreement in 1997, Beijing promised to maintain the free-wheeling city’s way of life for 50 years under a “one country, two systems” formula, although some fear 2047 is arriving early as authorities tighten their grip.
U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn accused China of cracking down on human rights and destroying “any semblance of autonomy in Hong Kong.”
“Keep the faith, Joshua, you are truly an inspiration to freedom fighters everywhere,” Blackburn said in a statement.
Rights groups were swift to condemn the court ruling.
“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,” said Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra.
Wong, Chow and Lam are all former members of political group Demosisto, which was disbanded hours before Beijing imposed the security law amid fears it could be targeted.
Hong Kong activist Sunny Cheung said Wong’s sentencing would leave a hole in the democracy movement’s fight to be heard.
“This is a big loss to the civil society. It also denotes a fact that Hong Kong is now entering a new stage if not a dark time which requires strategic adjustment in order to continue the fight for democracy,” Cheung said.
In recent months, the Hong Kong government has expelled opposition lawmakers from the legislature, disqualified pro-democracy candidates from running in a now-postponed election and arrested more than 30 people under the security legislation.
The expulsion of opposition lawmakers prompted democrats to resign en masse, leaving the legislature devoid of any opposition democrats for the first time since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.
Hundreds of Hong Kong activists have fled through legal or illegal channels to the democratic island of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province that should be brought back under its sovereignty, by force if necessary.
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) expressed grave concerns over the sentencing.
“The DPP emphasises that what the Chinese Communists
and the Hong Kong government have done today is equivalent of declaring that Hong Kong’s freedom is dead,” it said in a statement.