Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), Alex Chow (周永康) and Nathan Law (羅冠聰) were today sent to prison for their roles in the events that sparked the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.

The trio was last year found guilty of offenses related to entering Hong Kong’s Civic Square on Sept. 26, 2014 – days later the mass Occupy protest began with more than 100,000 taking to the streets in protest of China’s decision to pre-screen Hong Kong’s leadership candidates.

At the sentencing last year they escaped jail time – Law and Wong were given community service and Chow a suspended sentence – but an appeal by Hong Kong Department of Justice prosecutors was today successful.

Wong, 20, will serve six months, Law, 24, eight months and Chow, 26, seven months.

The sentence was handed out at the Court of Appeal in Hong Kong this afternoon, where a crowd of supporters had gathered.

“Imprisoning us will not extinguish Hongkonger's desire for universal suffrage. We are stronger, more determined, and we will win,” Wong said immediately after the decision, via Twitter.

Sentence 'too lenient'

In July last year, Law, who was later elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo), was found guilty on the more serious charge of "inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly.” Wong was acquitted of the same charge, but along with Chow was found guilty of the lighter charge, "taking part in an unlawful assembly."

When it came to sentencing a month later, Law and Wong were sentenced to 120 and 80 hours of community service respectively. Chow received a three-week prison sentence with a one-year suspension.

However, amid increased intervention in Hong Kong by Beijing and rising tension between the city’s government and pro-democracy activists, prosecutors this year appealed the sentence saying that it would not deter other young activists.

Throughout the proceedings, Wong and Law have said they do not regret their actions.

Speaking to a crowd of supporters and hordes of journalists before the sentencing this afternoon, Wong said he was “still optimistic” about the future of Hong Kong.

“I still believe time is on our side and one day Hong Kong will be a place [where] we can determine our own future,” he said.

And he urged those activists not in prison to “not give up or step backward.”

Hong Kong’s political prisoners

The case has attracted attention across the world, particularly through Wong who has gained widespread notoriety – helped along after Netflix started screening a documentary profiling his fight against Beijing, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.”

Earlier this week, The New York Times Editorial Board wrote in support of Wong, Law and Chow, forewarning Hong Kong could “jail its first political prisoners.”

“This episode is of a piece with the increasingly brazen crackdown against anyone in the city who challenges Beijing’s control,” the paper’s op-ed said. “The question is whether the United States, Britain and other nations will back up these young democrats who insist that their hometown maintain its commitments to the rule of law and political freedom.”

Suzanne Pepper, a longtime Hong Kong-based American academic and writer, says she does “not think [the NYT view] is an exaggeration.”

“In terms of political judgments, I think there is now no reason to hope that Hong Kong’s judiciary will proceed independently,” she says.

Hong Kong’s courts, which are based on the British legal system, have long been heralded for being a cornerstone of the rule of law and separation of powers that distinguish Hong Kong from communist China.

However, Pepper points to a distinct “toughening up” in the court’s judgments over the past year following a decision by Beijing late last year to make a rare intervention in Hong Kong, retroactively rewriting Hong Kong’s constitution – known as the Basic Law – to remove from parliament a group of pro-democracy legislators who had not properly sworn an oath of allegiance to China.

Courts now a 'political weapon'

Pepper says that regardless of whether a prison sentence was handed down today, “the current escalation of legal proceedings and punishments against democracy movement activists is creating a pervasive sense of defeat and depression.”

Earlier this week, a Hong Kong court handed down jail sentences of about one year to a group of 13 environmental activists who had stormed Hong Kong’s parliament in 2014 in protest of a controversial land development proposal.

Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo says, bluntly, the authorities are now “doing everything they can to clamp down on Hong Kong’s young activists.”

“The sentencing was unnecessarily harsh,” says Mo of the case involving the environmental activists. “It seems our judicial system, our courts, have now been turned not just [into] a political tool but an actual political weapon.”

Last month a court upheld the disqualification of four lawmakers – Law, Lau Siu-lai, Edward Yiu Chung-yim and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung – from the LegCo. The case was the second in a sequence brought by the Hong Kong government and brings the total number of pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified to six.

Still, in the wake of today’s decision, Pepper does not expect Hong Kong’s democracy movement to “retreat.”

“I think it will make them more determined – ‘steeled in struggle’ as the saying used to be.”

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy groups are notoriously fractured and historically have often fought among themselves. However, Pepper notes that the pressure they are now facing appears to be “bringing them, finally, together.”

Also, she says there a signs the movement’s leaders “are beginning to see the true nature of the threat they face.”

“Namely, that they should no longer look to the Basic Law’s promises for authority in demanding democracy – all their arguments and demands have been based on the promises written into the Basic Law,” she says. “They did not understand that when Beijing says ‘universal suffrage’ it can mean something entirely different from what they mean. Beijing means a Mainland-style election with the party naming the candidates and voters rubber-stamping the party’s choice.“

The next bellwether

The ability of those pro-democracy factions to work together in opposition to Beijing’s mounting intervention will be tested in a series of by-elections expected to be held in Hong Kong later this year.

The positions of as many as 10 legislators elected in September 2016 from the anti-Beijing camp could be in jeopardy. Cases have been brought against eight lawmakers over their oath-taking in October last year and two others face charges related to their activities in the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

While the “political blows being administered now are serious [and] unrelenting,” Pepper says it is not clear whether there is likely to be a strong backlash against Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing candidates at the polls.

“Public resentment may just be bottled up and dissipate or it might eventually explode,” she says. “In the meantime, the by-elections can be a good measure, both of whether candidates have learned their lessons about cooperating, not running against each other, and whether the voting public is still with them as it has been in every electoral test since the streets were cleared in 2014.”

Neither the schedule for the by-elections nor the exact number of seats that will be contested is known at this stage, a Hong Kong government spokesperson told The News Lens last month. Hong Kong’s electoral officials have earmarked HK$320 million (US$41 million) for any possible by-elections, more than three times the amount slated for the election of the Hong Kong chief executive in March.

Student leaders Joshua Wong (L) and Nathan Law stand outside a court in Hong Kong August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

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Editor: Olivia Yang

Image: (巴丢草) Badiucao