HONG KONG—Three protesters from Hong Kong’s youth opposition were jailed on June 11 for taking part in a 2016 protest that turned violent, receiving one of the harshest sentences handed down to democracy activists since the city was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Edward Leung, 27, one of the leaders of a movement advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China, was sentenced to six years for rioting and assaulting police. He was found guilty of rioting by a jury and had pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer.
Two other activists, Lo Kin-man and Wong Ka-kui, were jailed seven and three-and-half years, respectively, for rioting.
During the Lunar New Year holiday in 2016, hundreds gathered in Mong Kok District to defend local unlicensed street vendors from health inspectors, according to the South China Morning Post. The protests escalated after some masked protesters tossed bricks and set trash cans alight. Police used pepper spray and batons to disperse the crowd. Both police and protesters were injured.
Leung has supported Hong Kong’s outright secession from China, part of a movement of young activists who are dissatisfied with the Beijing regime’s erosion of the “one country, two systems” principle, stipulated in the 1997 Sino–British Joint Declaration to grant the city autonomy and civil freedoms such as free press and free assembly.
It wasn’t immediately clear if Leung would appeal the sentence.
Leung appeared calm upon hearing High Court Judge Anthea Pang announce the sentence, while murmurs of disbelief rippled through a crowd of about 150 activists and supporters watching a live broadcast outside the courtroom.
Pang said the violent protests had caused “great danger” to those at the scene and thus warranted the imposition of a strict deterrent sentence.
“The court absolutely does not allow livelihood or political disputes to be expressed through acts of violence,” she said.
Rioting in Hong Kong is defined under the city’s Public Order Ordinance as an assembly of three or more people where any person “commits a breach of the peace.”
This offense, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years behind bars, was last amended in 1970, a few years after a monthslong pro-communist riot against British rule killed at least 50 people, including children.
Hong Kong’s most high-profile democracy activist, Joshua Wong, described the sentence on Twitter as harsh under “Hong Kong’s present era of political prisoners.”
Wong himself was convicted of “unlawful assembly” under the Public Order Ordinance and served about two months in jail before the city’s top court quashed the imprisonment sentences in an appeal.
Leung’s sentence was also slammed by some international voices, including Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten.
Patten noted that the Public Order Ordinance carried vague definitions that were being used against a slew of local activists since the “Umbrella Movement” pro-democracy protests in late 2014.
“It is disappointing to see that the legislation is now being used politically to place extreme sentences on the pan-democrats and other activists,” Patten said in a statement issued via the London-based NGO, Hong Kong Watch.
Geoffrey Nice, a barrister who led the prosecution in the genocide trial of former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, called the jail term against Leung “unjustified.”
Although the court case does not deal directly with the issue of independence, the sentencing is likely to be seen as a broader warning against youth activism.
Leung, who was a student of philosophy at the University of Hong Kong during the 2016 protests, came to public prominence following the incident and won about 15 percent of votes during a by-election for an open Legislative Council seat that year. He was barred from running for another election later that year.
The Chinese regime has repeatedly slammed the independence movement, fearful of the idea catching on in the mainland.
Leung’s sentence came one week after two democracy activists and former lawmakers were sentenced to one month in jail for storming the legislative chamber in protest of their oaths of office being disqualified.
By Venus Wu. Epoch Times staff member Frank Fang contributed to this report.