Protesters claimed “It’s not a crime to fight against totalitarianism”
Thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest against the jailing of 16 democracy and land-rights activists, with many questioning the independence of the city’s judiciary. Three of the most visible leaders of Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement were among the sentenced to jail time for their roles in the series of massive pro-democracy protests in 2014. The sentences, which range from six to eight months, were previously revised, lighter penalties were handed down last year. The jail sentences effectively stop them from standing in the forthcoming elections, because anyone jailed for more than three months is disqualified from contesting local elections in Hong Kong for five years.
Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow were convicted for unlawful assembly in an incident which helped trigger the mass protests in Hong Kong. They were among a group of student protesters who scaled a fence around Hong Kong's legislative headquarters and occupied the building's courtyard. The three were sentenced last year to non-prison terms, including community service, but the justice department submitted an application to review the sentence seeking imprisonment. In the three years since, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments have tried to break and discipline pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong, particularly those involved in the Umbrella Movement.
Former student leader Lester Shum, who helped to organize Sunday’s rally, said that the number of protesters was the highest since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when the major roads in the city’s financial center were paralyzed for 79 days. “This shows that the Hong Kong government, the Chinese Communist regime and the Department of Justice’s conspiracy to deter Hong Kong people from continuing to participate in politics and to protest using harsh laws and punishments has completely failed,” Shum said.
In an official statement the Hong Kong government reiterated that there was no political consideration in the court of appeal's ruling, but said it was aware that members of the community had "different views on the judgment". It said the defendants had indicated they would lodge appeals, adding: "The case should be handled in accordance with judicial procedures".
Human rights watchdogs are alarmed by the heavy sentences meted out to the three men. "The charges against Chow, Law and Wong were political; the proceedings were political; the sentences are political" declared Sophie Richardson, director of Human Rights Watch in China. "These proceedings had nothing to do with the rule of law," Richardson added, "and so not only is it a sad day for these three peaceful pro-democracy activists, it's a travesty for Hong Kong and the ways in which it has long distinguished itself from the mainland."
Following the 2014 protests, Wong and Law formed the democracy party Demosisto, which calls for a referendum in which Hong Kongers decide what form the region's government would take after 2047. The "one country, two systems" arrangement under which China claims ownership of Hong Kong, but grants the region a high degree of autonomy, expires in that year.
Law was elected to Hong Kong's legislature last fall on the Demosisto ticket, only to be stripped of his seat for taking the oath of office in a manner inconsistent with the law. The latest ruling will keep him from running to reclaim that seat in a pending by-election, and could have a chilling effect on the democracy movement as a whole.
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