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HONG KONG – Ten pro-democracy activists were sentenced to 14 to 18 months in prison on Friday in Hong Kong for protesting in 2019, the latest in a string of harsh sentences that have put much of the opposition camp on Chinese territory behind bars and many more are waiting for their trial.
Everyone pleaded guilty this month to organizing the police-banned protest, which took place on October 1st, China’s national holiday. When they led a march on Hong Kong Island, clashes across the city resulted in some of the worst violence of protest of the year.
Some of those convicted on Friday, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, union leader Lee Cheuk-yan and activist Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Long Hair, had already been jailed after previous protest convictions. Two of the sentences against politicians Sin Chung-kai and Richard Tsoi were suspended for two years.
Fernando Cheung, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, said Friday that “such harsh penalties” would be imposed on days before the annual vigil on 4. On Thursday, Hong Kong police blocked the event for the second year in a row, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
Also on Friday, the Hong Kong Supreme Court issued a statement on why it refused to bail Claudia Mo, a moderate former MP who was among 47 pro-democracy activists indicted against a draconian new national security law. Judge Esther Toh quoted, among other things, “allegations of desperation and the loss of human rights and freedom” that Ms. Mo made in interviews and WhatsApp conversations with journalists from international news organizations, including the New York Times.
Activists, academics and others are increasingly cautious about speaking to foreign media in Hong Kong, where freedom of the press is enshrined in the local constitution but increasingly threatened.
The numerous trials against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists are part of a broad-based campaign by the Chinese government to curb political opposition and curb the dissent that led to massive street protests in 2019.
The authorities were helped in their crackdown by both the Security Act and a more assertive use of what was already on the books.
The security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 targets terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces. Its blanket language, much of which has yet to be examined in court, gives authorities new powers to block websites, freeze assets, conduct searches without a warrant, avoid jury trials and detain defendants without bail.
It also enables defendants in some cases to be tried under mainland law in the ruling Communist Party courts.
The law has led people to seek asylum in Australia, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere, and has raised fears about the future of Hong Kong schools, the judicial system, and even artistic expression.
More than 10,200 people were arrested in connection with the anti-government protests, the Hong Kong Justice Department said in April. Of these, more than 2,500 have been prosecuted and more than 600 have been convicted, including illegal gatherings, arson, rioting, possession of offensive weapons, attack on a police officer and desecration of the Chinese national flag.
Regardless, more than 100 people have been arrested under the Security Act or the local police force set up last summer to enforce it. Of these, 57 have been charged, Security Secretary John Lee said last week.
Along with thousands of ordinary citizens as young as 12, the arrests have swept away some of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy figures, including young activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, Mr. Lai, 73, and Martin Lee, 82, a former Legislator known as Hong Kong’s “Father of Democracy”.
But they have also extended down to the county councils, elected officials who deal with neighborhood-level issues like garbage collection. The district councils, which have been dominated by the opposition since a landslide election victory in November 2019, are considered to be the last formal mainstay of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement after all its supporters in the legislature resigned in protest late last year.
National security charges can result in life imprisonment depending on the severity of the courts. The high bail threshold means that most defendants will likely spend months, if not years, in prison before going on trial.
Most national security arrests occurred in January, when 55 pro-democracy politicians and activists were arrested, many in early morning raids. They organized or participated in an informal primary election in July, in which more than 600,000 people voted for pro-democracy candidates to run in the city’s general election two months later. This election was postponed by the Hong Kong government shortly after the primaries and is now scheduled for December 19, when new voting restrictions will apply.
Of the 55 people arrested, 47 were formally charged in February with conspiracy to commit Subversion, a violation of security law. Prosecutors said the pro-democracy bloc planned to win a majority in the legislature and then “indiscriminately” veto the government budget to force Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to resign. Thirty-six of the 47 accused were refused bail in four-day marathon hearings during which several were hospitalized with exhaustion.
The defendants cover a broad political spectrum, from Mr. Leung, an avowed radical, to moderate democrats like lawyer Alvin Yeung. Their unifying belief was the desire for universal suffrage in a city where democracy had long been hindered.
Other national security arrests included four young activists who were former members of an independence group; Mr. Lai, his two sons and several employees of his company Next Digital; and 11 people suspected of helping a group of activists who attempted to flee to Taiwan by boat last year while being charged in connection with the 2019 protests.
Mr Lai, who was sentenced to 14 months in prison on Friday during the October 1 protest, increasing his total prison term to 20 months, is still facing other cases including fraud, aiding and abetting an escape attempt and national security charges because of agreements with foreign armed forces. He is also one of 24 activists accused of participating in the banned Tiananmen Vigil last year. Four of the activists charged, including Mr. Wong, were sentenced to four to ten months in prison this month.
Nine of the twelve activists who tried to flee to Taiwan were charged with “perverting the judiciary” in Hong Kong. They were held in mainland China for months after being caught at sea by local authorities. Depending on the court in which they are charged, they face life imprisonment if convicted.
Trials under the Security Act are due to begin on June 23 against Tong Ying-kit, 24, who prosecutors said collided with police officers while riding a motorcycle with a Hong Kong Liberation flag on his back. He was one of ten protesters arrested on July 1, the first day of entry into force and the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule in 1997, on suspicion of violating security law. Mr. Tong, who has recently been detained, has been charged with terrorism and incitement to secession after his arrest. His request for a jury was denied.
The United States, Britain and other nations have criticized the security law and China’s increasing crackdown on Hong Kong. Some countries have dropped extradition agreements with Hong Kong and made it easier for people from the city to emigrate or seek asylum. The United States has also imposed sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials who led the crackdown.
The Chinese government has rejected criticism of its policies in Hong Kong, calling it meddling in its internal affairs and an instrument to increase pressure at a time of growing tensions between China and the West.