Joshua Wong, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists, was jailed yesterday for more than 13 months over an unlawful anti-government rally in 2019.
Mr Wong’s sentence comes as critics say the Beijing-backed government is intensifying a crackdown on the city’s opposition and chipping away at wide-ranging freedoms guaranteed after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, a charge the authorities 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.
Mr Wong (24) had pleaded guilty to organising and inciting an unlawful assembly near police headquarters during the height of the sometimes violent demonstrations in June last year. He faced a maximum of three years in jail and his sentence is the toughest for an opposition figure this year
About 100 supporters gathered quietly inside the court ahead of the sentence, while a small pro-Beijing group rallied outside, calling for a hefty sentence.
“I know the coming days will be tougher. We will hang in there,” Mr Wong, wearing a black sweater and surgical face mask, shouted after the sentence was read out.
“It’s not the end of the fight,” he 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.”
Mr Wong’s long-time colleagues Agnes Chow (23) and Ivan Lam (26) were jailed for 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.
Ms Chow, who cried inside the court room on hearing her sentence, had pleaded guilty to incitement and participation in an unlawful protest, while Mr Lam pleaded guilty to incitement.
A familiar face at democracy protests since he was a teenager, Mr 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.
Ahead of sentencing, the district court judge read a letter from Mr 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.
US 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,” Ms Blackburn said.
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 criticise the government that they could be next,” said Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific r egional director Yamini Mishra.
Mr Wong, Ms Chow and Mr Lam were all members of political group Demosisto, which was disbanded hours before Beijing imposed the security law amid fears it could be targeted.