US calls on Hong Kong to release Tiananmen vigil activists

Tens of thousands defied a ban last year and gathered at the vigil’s traditional site as part of pro-democracy movement.

Protesters in Hong Kong took part in a banned candlelight vigil to mark the 31st anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]
Protesters in Hong Kong took part in a banned candlelight vigil to mark the 31st anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The United States has called for the release of four Hong Kong activists who were handed jail terms for taking part in a vigil for victims of Beijing’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The appeal by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday was the latest condemnation by the US of a crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong, which has seen a growing pro-democracy movement in the face of a perceived erosion of liberties maintained by the semi-autonomous region under the “one country, two systems” framework.

“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and rejects the sentencing of activists for attending a Tiananmen commemoration,” Blinken wrote on Twitter.

“All those imprisoned for nonviolent exercise of guaranteed freedoms should be freed immediately,” he added.

For the past three decades, Hong Kong has marked the anniversary of Beijing’s deadly 1989 repression of protests in Tiananmen Square with massive candlelight vigils.

But last year’s event was banned for the first time, with police citing the coronavirus pandemic and security fears following a year of pro-democracy protests.

Tens of thousands defied the ban and massed peacefully at the vigil’s traditional site in Victoria Park. Since then, prosecutors have brought charges against more than two dozen prominent activists who showed up at the vigil.

Joshua Wong, Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen and Janelle Leung – four prominent youth activists in their twenties – were hit with jail terms on Thursday after pleading guilty to taking part in an “unauthorised assembly” last year on the June 4 Tiananmen anniversary.

Wong, one of the city’s most recognisable democracy activists, is currently serving 17.5 months in jail for two convictions linked to anti-government demonstrations in 2019.

He was handed a consecutive 10 months of jail for the new conviction, which will start once current sentences are finished.

Shum, 27, was given six months while Yuen, 27, and Leung, 26, were both handed four months.

Wong, Shum and Yuen have also been charged under a controversial national security law Beijing imposed on the city last year to stamp out dissent. They face up to life in jail if convicted.

The arrests are the latest in a string of criminal cases that have ensnared the city’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement, which has been further hindered by the National Security Law passed by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) last year that categorise a wide array of actions as “crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces punishable by up to life in prison”.

Under the 1997 handover deal with the United Kingdom, Beijing agreed to let Hong Kong keep certain freedoms and autonomy until 2047, which helped its transformation into one of the world’s leading financial centres.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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