US Condemns Sentencing of HK Pro-Democracy Activists, Calls Charges ‘Politically Motivated’

US Condemns Sentencing of HK Pro-Democracy Activists, Calls Charges ‘Politically Motivated’
Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington on April 5, 2021. (Alexander Drago/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Mimi Nguyen Ly

The U.S. Department of State and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Friday condemned the recent sentencing and jailing of multiple Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, calling the charges politically motivated and a reflection of declining rights and freedoms in the city.

A total of nine Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were handed sentences and suspended sentences on Friday for their participation in two “unauthorized” protests in Hong Kong in August 2019. The protests were part of a larger series of mass protests throughout 2019 over a proposed bill that would have let the Chinese regime extradite people from Hong Kong, which is supposed to have autonomy. The bill was withdrawn in September 2019.

Nine defendants were charged with organizing and joining an “unauthorized” mass protest on Aug. 18, 2019, that saw an estimated 1.7 million people taking part in a peaceful march, defying police orders to keep the protest at a stationery gathering near the city center. Two defendants—Leung Yiu-chung and Au Nok-hin—pleaded guilty, while the other seven—Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai, Albert Ho, Margaret Ng, Cyd Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan, and Leung Kwok-hung—pleaded not guilty.

In a separate protest on Aug. 31, 2019, hundreds of thousands of people defied a total protest ban by the police, and ignored that organizers had cancelled the event. Lai and Lee Cheuk-yan, as well as Yeung Sum, were sentenced for joining the event. All three pleaded guilty but maintained they didn’t do anything wrong.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States “condemns the sentencing of seven pro-democracy leaders on politically-motivated charges.” In his statement, Blinken named the seven who had pleaded not guilty in the case regarding the Aug. 18, 2019, protest, and said that their sentences were “incompatible with the non-violent nature of their actions.”

“Beijing and Hong Kong authorities are targeting Hong Kongers for doing nothing more than exercising protected rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech,” he said. “Today’s sentences are yet another example of how the PRC and Hong Kong authorities undermine protected rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration in an effort to eliminate all forms of dissent.”

Hong Kong was handed back from British colonial rule to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 with the express guarantee under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that the city’s high degree of autonomy and essential freedoms would be preserved under the principle of “one country, two systems” until 2047.

Blinken said that the declaration is binding and should guarantee the Hong Kong people rights and freedoms.

“We will continue to stand with Hong Kongers as they respond to Beijing’s assault on these freedoms and autonomy, and we will not stop calling for the release of those detained or imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms,” Blinken said.

CECC Chair and Co-chair, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), condemned the convictions of all 10 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists.

“The convictions should be condemned by all those committed to restoring Hong Kong’s autonomy and human rights,” they said in a statement on Friday. “These are clearly political prosecutions.”

They said the pro-democracy activists were “singled out and targeted by the Hong Kong law enforcement for participating in a peaceful march.”

“Few predicted that there would one day be political prisoners in Hong Kong, and that is now sadly the case, with more to come under the draconian National Security Law. Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms, guaranteed by international treaty, continue to be under assault,” they said.

“The signal sent today should have serious implications for relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. We stand ready to legislate for the people of Hong Kong and urge the Biden Administration and the international community to hold accountable those responsible for political prosecutions in Hong Kong,” they wrote.

Lawmakers, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), also condemned the situation.

On Twitter, Cruz called the sentencing a “grave injustice.” He signaled support for Lai—the founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily—and all who support freedom and democracy in Hong Kong. “I am determined to ensure that they are freed and that those who are wrongfully imprisoning [Lai] are held accountable,” he said.

Rubio on Twitter called the sentencing of the pro-democracy activists “a further assault on freedom & democracy everywhere.”

“The free world has to come together to condemn & hold #Beijing accountable for this travesty of justice,” he wrote.

Pelosi expressed that she was “saddened and disturbed” to see sentences dealt for those who sought free and peaceful protests, calling the event “another sign of Beijing’s assault on the rule of law.”

“Congress remains laser-focused on legislation and diplomatic efforts including with our allies to hold China accountable & support Hong Kong’s efforts to maintain & grow the rule of law and freedom of speech in their city,” Pelosi wrote.