Three years after the 79-day Occupy protests calling for greater democracy in Hong Kong, the young leaders of the movement are going to jail.
Joshua Wong, 20, Nathan Law, 24, and Alex Chow, 26, were sentenced to six months, eight months, and seven months, respectively, by a court in Hong Kong today (Aug. 17) for their actions in the 2014 protests, also known as the Umbrella Movement. The judgment comes after they already served community service sentences handed down to them last summer on charges of unlawful assembly. The Hong Kong Department of Justice, however, has since appealed the case to a higher court on the grounds that those sentences were too light. It already succeeded earlier this week in the re-sentencing of 13 activists to prison for their role in another 2014 protest, after they too had served community service sentences.
The jail sentences mark the climax in a sustained effort by the Hong Kong government since the end of the Occupy protests to punish political activists. That process has accelerated in recent months, most notably with the disqualification of multiple pro-democracy lawmakers on the grounds that their swearing-in oaths were problematic, though many worry that the legal challenges against them were politically motivated, as candidates critical of Beijing made big gains in the Legislative Council elections late last year. Law, who was the youngest lawmaker ever in Hong Kong, was one of four legislators ejected from his post in July.
Wong called it the “darkest era” for Hong Kong’s democratic movement in an interview with Reuters.
The Department of Justice dismissed claims that the appeals were politically motivated in any way, and said that the trio broke the law because of their “disorderly and intimidating behaviour.”
The jail sentences, because they are longer than three months, mean that none of the three will be allowed to run for the Legislative Council for five years. Wong, who co-founded the Demosisto political party last year with Law (Wong was too young to run for elections at the time), said that the party would continue to field “the most capable” candidates in future elections.
Chow just completed a master’s program at the London School of Economics and was due to begin a PhD in geography at the University of California, Berkeley. During the protests he was the leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a university-student group at the helm of the movement.
Wilson Leung, a practicing lawyer in Hong Kong and member of the Progressive Lawyers Group, said that he still believes judges in Hong Kong are independent of the government. “However, we strongly disagree with the government treating political problems as ‘law and order’ problems and focusing on the prosecution of protestors,” he said.
Also weighing in was US senator Marco Rubio, who issued a statement reading in part:
“The political prosecutions and resentencing of these young people is shameful and further evidence that Hong Kong’s cherished autonomy is precipitously eroding. 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 and undermine the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement.”
Law said he faced his prison sentence with “calm” in his heart. Wong said he was “mentally prepared” for jail time, and before entering the courtroom today (link in Chinese), rallied his supporters: “Those of us going to jail haven’t given up… the people outside of jail have no reason to give up.” He tweeted this after the verdict was announced:
But Leung, the lawyer, fears that “the deterrent effect of harsh sentences will not be on offenders only but on the whole society against people speaking up.” The coming years will show whether Wong’s parting words ring truer.