Beijing — A trio of young, well-known, pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong were sentenced to prison on Wednesday. It was the latest nail in the coffin of the city’s once-very-public opposition movement that saw millions of protesters take to the streets from June to December last year, decrying the erosion of the Asian financial hub’s semi-autonomy from Beijing.
Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam are household names in Hong Kong. They’re heroes to many who back the city’s pro-democracy movement, but irritants, if not enemies, to Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing establishment.
Now the three democracy activists are heading to prison.
Wong, 24, received the longest sentence at 13.5 months. Agnes Chow was sentenced to 10 months just a day before her 24th birthday, and Ivan Lam, 26, got seven months.
All threeto charges related to organizing “unauthorized assembly” during last year’s massive pro-democracy protests.
The specific date in question for their sentencing was June 21, 2019, when there was a major protest outside Hong Kong’s police headquarters.
Wong was very prominent at the rally, addressing protesters via loudspeaker.
Many Hong Kongers were angry at the police for using tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters, which our CBS News team got caught up in on June 12. They were also furious about an extradition bill Hong Kong’s local government was considering that would have letremove residents of Hong Kong for prosecution on the mainland.
To both the pro-democracy movement and many foreign observers, it appeared as a blatant attempt to change the terms of the agreement struck in the 1990s, when Hong Kong was handed back to China after 99 years of British colonial rule. Under that agreement the city was granted an independent judiciary system, along with press freedom and other rights that don’t exist on the mainland.
While the events happened last year, the sentencing was only possible thanks to a controversial new “national security” law passed in January by China’s rubber-stamp congress.
That made secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces crimes in Hong Kong, carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. And the law is being applied retroactively, so Hong Kong authorities — and by extension Beijing — can crack down on opposition voices.
Given the broad terms of the law, democracy supporters fear that virtually anything anyone does in Hong Kong can now be interpreted as a violation.
While Wong was in custody awaiting his sentence, friends wrote for him on his Twitter feed.
One post, citing his lawyers, said Wong had declared in court: “It’s not the end of the fight. Ahead of us is another challenging battleground. We’re now joining the battle in prison along with many brave protesters, less visible, yet essential in the fight for democracy and freedom for HK.”
Another prominent Honk Kong dissident, Nathan Law, who fled to the U.K. shortly after the new national security law was imposed, said the “absurdly heavy sentencing” handed down on Wednesday put the “independence of the judiciary system” further in doubt.
“It shows that the court once again become the suppression tool in favor to the authorities and the authority is determined to imprison prominent activists to set an example,” Law said on a WhatsApp messaging group used by the pro-democracy movement.
“I hope the international community could voice against this unjust sentencing and demand immediate release of the trio,” he said. “We all have to stick to our roles and resist. It’s time to speak up for Hong Kong more actively.”
CBSNews.com’s Haley Ott in London contributed to this report.