Hong Kong’s democracy movement has suffered the latest setback in what has been a punishing year after three of its most influential young leaders were jailed for their roles in a protest at the start of a 79-day anti-government occupation known as the umbrella movement.
Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong, the bespectacled student dubbed Hong Kong’s “face of protest” were sentenced to between six and eight months imprisonment each.
The trio, aged 26, 24 and 20 respectively, had avoided jail a year ago after being convicted of taking part in or inciting an “illegal assembly” that helped spark the umbrella protests, in late September 2014. But this month Hong Kong’s department of justice called for those sentences to be reconsidered, with one senior prosecutor attacking the “rather dangerous” leniency he claimed had been shown to the activists.
Judge Wally Yeung argued the sentences were a necessary deterrent to what he called a “sick trend” of anti-government protest. “Such arrogant and self-righteous thinking [has] unfortunately affected some young people, and led them to damage public order and peace during protests,” he said, according to the Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK.
“See you soon,” Wong tweeted shortly after the verdict was announced.
In another message he wrote: “Imprisoning us will not extinguish Hongkonger’s desire for universal suffrage. We are stronger, more determined, and we will win.”
“You can lock up our bodies, but not our minds! We want democracy in Hong Kong. And we will not give up.”
The decision to increase the activists’ punishments sparked outrage among supporters and campaigners who condemned what they called the latest example of Beijing’s bid to snuff out peaceful challenges to its rule.
“It smacks of political imprisonment, plain and simple,” said Jason Ng, the author of Umbrellas in Bloom, a book about Hong Kong’s youth protest movement.
Mabel Au, Amnesty International’s director in Hong Kong, said: “The relentless and vindictive pursuit of student leaders using vague charges smacks of political payback by the authorities.”
“It is not a surprise but it is a shock. It is another blow for basic freedoms and the rule of law in Hong Kong,” said Benedict Rogers, the deputy chair of the conservative human rights commission.
There was also criticism from the United States where Republican senator Marco Rubio attacked the decision as “shameful and further evidence that Hong Kong’s cherished autonomy is precipitously eroding”.
“Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Alex Chow and other umbrella movement protesters are pro-democracy champions worthy of admiration, not criminals deserving jail time,” said Rubio, who heads the congressional-executive commission on China.
“Beijing’s heavy hand is on display for all to see as they attempt to crush the next generation of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement,” he added.
Speaking before the verdict, Wong told the Guardian he was sure he would be jailed since the decision to seek stiffer punishments was driven by politics, not legal arguments. “It’s a political prosecution,” he said. “It is the darkest era for Hong Kong because we are the first generation of umbrella movement leaders being sent to prison.”
Wong claimed the decision to use the courts to crack down on umbrella activists showed China’s one-party rulers had managed to transform the former British colony, once a rule-of-law society, into a place of “authoritarian rule by law”.
“No one would like to go to prison but I have to use this as a chance to show the commitment of Hong Kong’s young activists,” he said. “It is really a cold winter for Hong Kong’s democracy movement – but things that cannot defeat us will make us stronger.”
Thursday’s controversial ruling caps a torrid year for the pro-democracy camp of this semi-autonomous Chinese city, which returned to Beijing’s control on 1 July 1997 after 156 years of colonial rule.
During a June visit marking the 20th anniversary of handover, Chinese president Xi Jinping oversaw a tub-thumping military parade which observers said underscored the increasingly hardline posture Beijing was now taking towards Hong Kong amid an upsurge in support for independence. “The implication is: ‘We will come out in the streets and put you down if we have to,’” the political blogger Suzanne Pepper said at the time.
A fortnight later, the democracy movement suffered a body blow when four pro-democracy lawmakers, including Law, were ejected from Hong Kong’s parliament for using their oath-taking ceremonies to thumb their noses at Beijing. That decision robbed the pro-democracy camp of its veto power over major legislation.
In an interview with the Guardian, Law, who had been the youngest person elected to Hong Kong’s legislature, said the disqualifications were an attempt by Beijing to “suppress the more progressive voices in Hong Kong”.
“I won’t give up fighting. If Liu Xiaobo can persist under much harsher circumstances, so can we,” Law vowed, referring to the late democracy icon who died in Chinese custody last month, becoming the first Nobel peace prize winner to perish in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who died in 1938 after years in Nazi concentration camps.
On Tuesday, 13 umbrella activists were jailed for storming Hong Kong’s parliament in 2014, a decision Human Rights Watch condemned as part of a surge in politically motivated prosecutions.
Ng, the author, said he believed the decision to jail Wong and Law was deliberately designed to stop them running for office later this year in local byelections. Their imprisonment was not intended to deter violence or social disorder but to crack down on “the willingness of young, idealistic people to engage politically”.
“[These sentences] significantly increase the cost of dissent in Hong Kong,” Ng warned. “From now on, protesters will need to think about the possibility of getting locked up for months or even years.
“It has an enormous chilling effect … especially on young people, and sends a strong message to them that they should shut up or else.”
Speaking on Wednesday night, Wong said he would not be silenced, even behind bars where he planned to spend his time reading novels, studying and writing columns about politics.
Wong also used his final hours of freedom to send a message to Xi: “Please respect the desires of Hong Kong people. The people are united and they will never stop.”