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‘You Can Lock Up Our Bodies, But Not Our Minds': Hong Kong Court Sends 16 Activists to Prison

Three student leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy protests, Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law, were sentenced to jail. Photo: Facebook/Demosisto

Nearly three years after mass pro-democracy demonstrations rocked the city of Hong Kong, 16 young activists were convicted on August 16 of unlawful assembly for their participation in two separate protests challenging the government.

Though the activists were originally convicted and sentenced to community service and suspended jail time, the Department of Justice later filed a re-sentencing appeal, arguing that the original sentences for the activists were “too light”. This week, Hong Kong's Court of Appeal ruled in their favor.

Many within Hong Kong's pro-democracy civic sector see the ruling as a politically motivated move that pushes the city towards a judicial culture that errs on the side of power over rights.

The first case involves 13 defendants including League of Social Democrats (LSD) Vice-Chairman Raphael Wong, Land Justice League convener Willis Ho, and activist Billy Chiu who in 2014 demonstrated to stop the government’s funding request of HK$340 million (approximately US$43.5 million) to develop the northeast New Territories in 2014. Opponents feared the development plan would fail to protect residents and the environment, and argued that the policy-making process surrounding the development was undemocratic.

Some in the group protested outside the Hong Kong Legislative Council, while others attempted to enter the legislature building. All were found guilty of unlawful assembly in 2015 and have already served between 80 and 150 community service hours.

On August 15, the Court of Appeal sentenced 12 of the defendants to 13 months in prison and one to eight months.

Activists against Northeast New Territories development. Via inmediahk.net

The second case involves Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, three young activists who played a central role in the 2014 pro-democracy protests. Dubbed the Umbrella Movement, the massive sit-in demanding that the people be allowed to nominate candidates for Hong Kong's top leader lasted for three months.

The trio were convicted of unlawful assembly in July 2016. Wong was sentenced to 80 hours of community service, Law received 120 hours, and Chow received a three-week suspended jail sentence.

On August 17, the Court of Appeal re-sentenced Wong to six months behind bars, Law to eight months, and Chow to seven months.

According to Hong Kong's constitution, called the Basic Law, any individual who received a prison sentence for more than three months is to be deprived of the right to run in legislature and district council elections for five years. The activists will appeal the sentences.

‘You can lock up our bodies, but not our minds!’

In statements on social media, the activists vowed that they would not be intimidated and urged Hong Kong people not to give up.

Willis Ho, one of the activists who challenged the Northeast New Territories development plan, wrote before she was sentenced to 13 month in prison:

我不能不承認,我感到的社會,是黑暗和絕望的,不想散發負能量,但承認絕望才可以看到微微的光芒,在暗處抵抗。很微小,但存在。其他審判的戰友、男友,大抵要在入面看電視才會知道你們往後判刑的消息,這種「挫敗」會叫大家更堅韌不屈,我們互勉,意志上同在。知道在不同崗位都有努力的人,同在。
當自己決定不認罪、表示毫無悔意,是倔強地表明,刑罰不會改變我的信念、無法讓我感到後悔。

I have to admit, I see darkness and despair in our society. I don’t want to spread negative energy but in despair I can see light resisting against the darkness. The light is weak but it exists. I could only see on television the result of the court's decision: my boyfriend and fellow protesters on television in jail. Such a “setback” will make us stronger. We will support and be there for each other. We know that there are people who are with us making changes in different positions.

The decision to plead not guilty and the refusal to express regret over my action is a steadfast statement that the sentence cannot change, it cannot change our belief and make me feel regret.

Willis Ho.

Her mother shared her feelings on Facebook on her daughter’s trial:

今日東北案13被告中 其中有我的至親 折騰三年 終於判了 重
從沒有這樣的經驗 一道殺來 在外的我 情感百般 在内的她 心頭相若
在此 默默遙送支持鼓勵 無論你看見晨曦的日出 和煦的午後 沉鬱的黃昏
燦星的晚上
我都在 在惦念著你 給你力 給你氣
有天當你回來時 磨練把你更堅實 體現把你更豐富
最想你知道 你是我的驕傲 你沒有錯

Today, among the 13 defendants of Northeast New Territories protest, is my dearest [daughter]. After three years [of trial], the sentence is heavy.

I have never had such an experience before, such a heavy blow. I have mixed feelings and I'm sure she has them too.

I can only send my support in silence. When you see the sun rise, the sun set and the stars at night, I am with you, thinking about you and giving you strength.

When you are back, you will be stronger with a lot more experience.

I want you know that I am so proud of you and you have done nothing wrong.

Another activist from the Northeast New Territories case, Raphael Wong, posted his defense statement on inmediahk.net:

我不求憐憫,但求公義;我不怕無情監禁,我怕鴉雀無聲。我說過,對於此案,我毫無悔意,絕不求繞…律政司說我無真誠侮意,因此應當坐牢,我說我真誠無侮意,不是為求坐牢,而是忠於自己,忠於戰友,如牢獄是我必然之所,我坦然面對,我所信相的主耶穌與我同在。
新界東北的村民仍需我們關心,以及橫洲的村民亦是,為求諸位萬勿灰心,我們要堅持下去,這是意志的比拚,這是無煙硝的精神戰爭,我們用耐心、勇氣和智慧繼續抗爭,我深信,公義必將到來!

I don’t seek sympathy, but justice; I am not scared of prison, but silence [of the society]. I have said I have no regrets and would not surrender… the Secretary of Justice said I did not have sincere regrets and should be imprisoned. My sincerity in having no regrets is not to ask for more prison time but to be faithful to myself, to my fellow activists. If that leads to prison, I will face that without regrets. Jesus Christ will be with me.

Villagers [who face forced demolition] in the Northeast New Territories and Wangzhou need us. Please don’t give up. We have to carry on. This is a competition of wills, it is a spiritual war without guns. We need patience, courage and wisdom to carry on the struggle. I firmly believe that justice will prevail!

Nathan Law was given eight months in prison in the second case. He was a legislator who was recently disqualified from office for modifying his oath of allegiance to China during his swearing-in ceremony.

He expressed similar sentiments in his letter to friends:

無論高牆多麼的高,無論它遮擋陽光的陰影多麼廣闊,我始終相信它那背後通往公義的路,照耀和滋長生命的太陽,依然長存世上…
所有參與、聲援過雨傘運動的朋友,牢獄是為所有人而坐,也是為公義而坐。你要抱有的不是歉意,而是前進的動力和決心。當我心存自由的腦袋在牢籠內,我希望與我分享同一信念和價值的人,能夠更好的生活和抗爭。暴政不是由人的犧牲而推翻,而是由各位心存道德力量的人,共同合力改變;缺乏你們的改變,各位在牢獄內外背起的痛苦,是沒有意義的。

No matter how high the wall is, how much sunlight its shadow has blocked, I believe that behind the wall the path leads to justice. The sun that nourishes life on Earth still exists…

I serve prison time for those who have participated in the Umbrella Movement and for justice. Don’t feel sorry, be more determined in stepping forward. Although I am in prison, my free spirit will be with those who share our beliefs and values and continue fighting for a better life. Tyranny won’t be overthrown by those who sacrificed but by people who are driven by moral power to collectively make change. Without such collective will to change, our suffering and pain, inside or outside of prison, will become meaningless.

Joshua Wong, a well-known student leader, tweeted before he was sent to the prison:

‘It has ‘created’ the youngest group of political prisoners since the handover’

The Civic political party described the re-sentencing of the activists as “legal terrorism” in a statement (via Hong Kong Free Press):

The Civic Party believes that this sentence, despite being lighter than that given to the Northeast New Territories protesters, exhibits the same principle: the government will stop at nothing in its use of appeal procedures and sentence reviews – what are, in effect, tools of legal terrorism – to deal with protesters and social movements opposed to the establishment. The appeal and jail sentence is a form of institutional violence and political suppression – it has ‘created’ the youngest group of political prisoners since the handover.

The “handover” refers to the transfer of control over Hong Kong, a former British colony, to China in 1997.

Human Rights Watch's China director Sophie Richardson said, also via Hong Kong Free Press:

The justice department’s outlandish application seeking jail time is not about public order but is instead a craven political move to keep the trio out of the Legislative Council, as well as deter future protests.

International society has spoken out, including various US legislators who issued statements condemning the move.

The pro-democracy civic sector has planned a rally for Sunday, August 20 condemning the prosecution of the 16.

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