Hong Kong’s leading independence activist was jailed for six years on Monday for rioting and assaulting police, one of the city’s harshest sentences against a democracy activist in recent years.
Edward Leung, one of the leaders of a movement advocating for Hong Kong‘s independence from China, had earlier been found guilty of rioting in a 2016 overnight protest that turned violent.
He had pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer. The 27-year-old was sentenced to one year in jail on that count, with the two terms to be served concurrently.
About 130 people, mostly police, were injured when masked protesters tossed bricks and set rubbish cans alight to vent their anger against what they saw as mainland Chinese encroachment on the city’s autonomy and freedoms.
Handing down his jail term, Judge Anthea Pang said Leung actively participated in the riots and described his actions as “wanton and vicious”.
The 2016 protest began as a seemingly innocuous rally to protect illegal hawkers from health inspectors but it quickly morphed into an outpouring of anger against authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.
At the forefront of the clashes were young “localists”, a term coined for radical groups promoting a split from mainland China which grew out of the failure of massive pro-democracy rallies in 2014 to win concessions from Beijing on political reform.
At the time, Leung was the head of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous and a rising star on the political scene as the fledgling independence movement gathered momentum, infuriating Beijing.
Pang said the protesters appeared to be “sincere, earnest but wrong-headed people” with strong convictions.
They “will stop at nothing to impose those views” on society, she said, which Hong Kong cannot tolerate as it poses “extremely great danger”.
Leung looked calm throughout the hearing and waved at supporters – some of whom reacted emotionally to the sentence – before being led away.
Two other protesters were sentenced alongside Leung to seven years and three and a half years in prison.
At least 16 people have already been jailed over the clashes, with terms of up to four years and nine months for a man convicted of rioting and arson. Unlike Leung, none were known activists.
Police fired warning shots in the air as the unrest worsened and scores of people including officers were injured, with dozens arrested.
The protests were dubbed the “Fishball Revolution” after one of the city’s best-loved street snacks.
The defence said Leung, who pleaded not guilty, had no intention to riot but wanted to “protect Hong Kong culture”.
Multiple pro-democracy activists who want a greater say in how the city is run but do not push for full independence have been prosecuted on protest-related charges over the largely peaceful 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Leung is the first leading activist advocating full independence to come to court.
He was previously barred from standing in legislative elections due to his support for independence as Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government cracks down on any advocacy of a split.
Leung resigned as spokesman of Hong Kong Indigenous and left the group in December last year.
The government’s squeeze on independence campaigners has seen several activists barred from standing for office and others ejected from Hong Kong’s partially elected legislature.