A court in Hong Kong has sentenced pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong to 13 and a half months in prison after he pleaded guilty to organising and inciting an unauthorised assembly outside a police station during mass protests against the government in June last year.
Wong’s longtime fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced on Wednesday to 10 and seven months in prison, respectively, on charges linked to the same protest.
“The defendants called on protesters to besiege the headquarters and chanted slogans that undermine the police force,” Magistrate Wong Sze-lai said as she read out the sentences.
“Immediate imprisonment is the only appropriate option,” she added.
The protest took place in the district of Wanchai on June 21 last year and saw thousands surround the police headquarters as they demonstrated against excessive force used by police against protesters, as well as a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial.
All three – formerly members of the now-disbanded political group Demosisto – had been remanded in custody pending their sentencing.
It is the first time that Chow, 23, has been given a jail sentence. Wong, 24, and Lam, 26, had previously been jailed over charges related to their activism.
Chow, dubbed by some in Hong Kong as the “goddess of democracy”, cried in the court room on hearing the sentence. She had pleaded guilty to incitement and participation in an unlawful protest, while Lam had pleaded guilty to incitement.
As Wong was escorted out of court, he shouted to his supporters: “The days ahead will be tough but we will hang in there.”
The crowd, some of whom were sobbing, responded with a popular protest slogan – “Add oil!”
“It’s not the end of the fight,” Wong said later through his lawyer.
“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.”
The jailing of the trio, known for their advocacy for democracy in Hong Kong both at home and abroad, comes as Beijing tightens control over the semi-autonomous city following months of anti-government protests last year, which occasionally saw violent clashes between protesters and police.
Rights groups condemned Wednesday’s sentences, with the Human Rights Watch’s Sophie McNeill labelling the ruling “heartbreaking and outrageous”.
Yamini Mishra, regional director for the Asia-Pacific, said the jailing of the trio was aimed at sending a message to other Hong Kong dissidents.
“Once again, the government has used the politically-motivated charge of ‘inciting others to protest’ to prosecute people who have merely spoken out and protested peacefully,” she said.
“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.”
Dominic Raab, the British foreign minister, also issued a statement urging authorities in Hong Kong to stop their campaigns to stifle the opposition.
“Prosecution decisions must be fair and impartial, and the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong must be upheld,” he said.
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,” Blackburn said in a statement.
A familiar face at democracy protests since he was a teenager, Wong was less than a year old when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to Beijing 23 years ago with a guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including freedom of speech and assembly.
Democracy activists say Beijing is rapidly chipping away at those freedoms, with the imposition of a national security law on June 30 seen as the latest blow to the city’s liberties, which are crucial for its status as a global financial hub.
The law criminalises anything Beijing deems an act of secession, subversion, “terrorism” or collusion with foreign forces.
China sees Wong and other Hong Kong activists who have lobbied for international support as the “black hands” of Western powers that are trying to meddle in its internal affairs. It has also defended the sweeping legislation as crucial to restoring stability and peace to the territory following the 2019 unrest.
Wong is also facing charges of participating in an unauthorised assembly in October last year and on June 4, 2020, over a vigil for the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was barred in July from running for a seat in the city’s legislature before the election itself was postponed a year.
Chow was one of the first opposition politicians to be arrested under Beijing’s new security law – on a charge of “colluding with foreign forces” – and could face up to life in jail if prosecuted and convicted of that charge.
Additional reporting by Erin Hale in Taipei, Taiwan.