HONG KONG - Hong Kong’s influential pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were sentenced Wednesday to jail terms after pleading guilty to unlawful assembly charges in connection with the city’s pro-democracy protests last year.
The charges were linked to a protest that took place outside the Hong Kong Police Headquarters in the district of Wan Chai in June 2019.
The trio had expected jail time after being remanded in custody since their guilty plea on November 23.
Wong received a sentence of 13-and-a-half months in jail after pleading guilty to both inciting and organizing an unauthorized assembly. Chow received a 10-month sentence for inciting and taking part in the protest, while Lam received a 7-month sentence for inciting the protest.
Last June, thousands of protesters surrounded the headquarters and protested excessive force used by the police. At the time, the citywide protests were only a few weeks old, sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have seen suspects sent to mainland China for trial.
“The defendants called on protesters to besiege the headquarters and chanted slogans that undermine the police force,” Magistrate Wong Sze-lai read out inside the West Kowloon Magistrates Court. "Immediate imprisonment is the only appropriate option.”
Because the charges came prior to a National Security Law imposed by Beijing, the activists avoided potential life imprisonment.
The three were once colleagues in the now-disbanded political organization Demosisto. Both Wong and Lam have been to jail before. But for Chow, this will be her first time in prison, sentenced on the eve of her 24th birthday.
Chow was visibly upset inside the courtroom, often keeping her head low during court proceedings. As the Magistrate read out her sentence, she burst into tears.
Later, Wong, who often is seen as the leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, made a statement on Twitter via his lawyers, “It’s not the end of the fight. Ahead of us is another challenging battleground.”
Outside the court building, a handful of pro-Beijing supporters had called for “severe punishment” to the activists. Small arguments ensued with the pro-democracy supporters.
After the sentencing, pro-democracy protesters remained, holding up posters in support for the trio.
“They are so important to Hong Kong. This is not fair for them, the court is just following the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] will. The judiciary independence in Hong Kong will never exist,” one supporter said.
The activists’ jail sentences add to the growing clampdown within the former British colony after last year’s pro-democracy demonstrations.
Hong Kong was handed back to China from Britain in 1997, under the “one country, two systems” agreement, promising the city a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047.
But in June, Beijing implemented the National Security Law for Hong Kong to curtail demonstrations happening again. The law came into effect on June 30 of this year, prohibiting secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted.
Since then, the new security law has been a catalyst for sweeping changes in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy books have been removed from libraries, while the government has banned popular pro-democracy slogans.
Local authorities have arrested protesters, activists, journalists and politicians as pro-Beijing pressure mounts. In November, four legislators were disqualified from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, prompting the remaining 15 legislators to resign en masse. This leaves Hong Kong without any legal party to oppose to a majority Pro-Beijing party.
Avery Ng, a social activist and Chairman of the League of Social Democrats,said Tuesday’s sentencing is “extremely sad.”
“This judgement tells the world the justice service is not a place for justice. It’s a place for the government to take revenge for those who disagree with it,” Ng told VOA. “Inciting unauthorized assembly used to be an offense for a fine to $2,000 HKD ($258), now it jumps to a jail sentence for a year — this is the new norm in Hong Kong.”
“You can not view this sentencing from a legal perspective,” he added.
Joseph Cheng, political analyst and former Professor at the City University of Hong Kong, said the sentencing shows “the price is very high for activists” when opposing the government and Beijing.
“In the eyes of the pro-democracy movement, this is political suppression. The government wants to create a deterrence effect. It is a very difficult period of time for the pro-democracy movement right now,” Cheng told VOA.
“Hong Kong people realize Beijing tolerates no political opposition at this stage. Some will withdraw, for the time being, some will emigrate in international lobbying. The movement will be led by the younger generation and the more radical activists,” he added.
Even after Tuesday’s sentencing, legal issues for Wong and Chow are far from over.
Wong has outstanding charges of participating in an unauthorized assembly during demonstrations in October 2019. Chow was supposed to report to police Tuesday after being released on bail following her arrest for “inciting secession” under the National Security Law in August.