Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong defying as jailed for over 13 months for protest
By Jessie Pang and Clare Jim
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Joshua Wong, 24, one of Hong Kong’s foremost Democratic activists, was jailed for more than 13 months on Wednesday for an illegal anti-government rally in 2019, the most severe sentence and the most publicized for an opposition figure this year.
Wong’s conviction comes as critics say the Beijing-backed government is stepping up crackdown on Hong Kong opposition and curtailing extended freedoms guaranteed after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, a charge rejected by the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Reacting to the court ruling, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab urged authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing to stop their campaigns to stifle opposition.
Wong had pleaded guilty to organizing and instigating an illegal gathering near the city’s police headquarters at the height of the sometimes violent protests in June last year. He risked a maximum of three years in prison.
Around 100 supporters quietly gathered inside the courthouse ahead of the sentencing, while a small group of pro-Beijing people gathered outside, calling for a heavy prison term.
“I know the next few days will be more difficult. We’re going to hang in there,” Wong shouted, wearing a black sweater and surgical mask, after reading the sentence.
“This is not the end of the fight,” Wong said later through his lawyers.
“Ahead of us lies another difficult battlefield. We are now joining the battle in prison with many courageous protesters, less visible but essential in the struggle for democracy and freedom for Hong Kong. “
Wong’s longtime colleagues Agnes Chow, 23, and Ivan Lam, 26, were jailed for a total of 10 and seven months, respectively, on charges related to the same siege when thousands of protesters surrounded the police headquarters on June 21 to demand the government withdraw a now abandoned extradition bill.
Chow, who cried in the courtroom upon hearing his sentence, pleaded guilty to inciting and participating in an illegal protest, while Lam pleaded guilty to incitement.
A familiar face for democracy protests since his teenage years, Wong was less than a year old when Hong Kong returned to Beijing 23 years ago with a guarantee of freedoms he did not enjoy on the mainland, including freedom to expression and meeting.
China’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong on June 30 was seen as the latest blow to the city’s freedoms, which are crucial to its status as a global financial hub.
“KEEP THE FAITH”
Before the sentencing, the district court judge read a letter from Wong’s mother to the court in which she stated that her son was “a young person who cares about society and persists in its ideals.”
As part of the 1997 transfer agreement, Beijing pledged to keep the city’s way of life coasting for 50 years on a “one country, two systems” formula, though some fear 2047 will come. early as authorities tighten their grip.
US Senator Marsha Blackburn accused China of suppressing human rights and destroying “any semblance of autonomy in Hong Kong”.
“Keep the faith, Joshua, you are truly an inspiration to freedom fighters all over the world,” Blackburn said in a statement.
Rights groups were quick to condemn the court ruling.
“By targeting well-known activists of the largely leaderless Hong Kong protest movement, authorities are sending a warning to anyone who dares to openly criticize the government that they may be next,” said Yamini Mishra, regional director of Amnesty International for Asia-Pacific.
Wong, Chow and Lam are all former members of the Demosisto political group, which was disbanded hours before Beijing imposed the security law over fears it might be targeted.
Hong Kong activist Sunny Cheung said Wong’s conviction would leave a hole in the democracy movement’s fight to be heard.
“This is a great loss for civil society. It also denotes a fact that Hong Kong is now entering a new stage, if not a dark period that requires strategic adjustment in order to continue the struggle for democracy,” Cheung said. .
In recent months, the Hong Kong government has expelled opposition MPs from the legislature, barred pro-democracy candidates from running in now-postponed elections and arrested more than 30 people under security laws.
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’s return 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.
The ruling Progressive Democratic Party (DPP) in Taiwan has expressed serious concerns over the sentencing.
“The DPP emphasizes that what the Chinese Communists
and the Hong Kong government today has done tantamount to declaring that Hong Kong’s freedom is dead, “he said in a statement.
(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Clare Jim, Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Aleksander Solum in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in TAIPEI; written by Anne Marie Roantree; edited by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Kim Coghill)