Eight Hong Kong activists were handed sentences of up to 16 months in prison on Wednesday for their roles organizing pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014.
The activists were convicted on charges of public nuisance and incitement two weeks ago, a verdict that some perceived as underscoring eroding political freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese enclave under pressure from Beijing.
Law professor Benny Tai and retired sociology professor Chan Kin-man, co-founders of the “Occupy Central” protest that immobilized the city’s financial district five years ago, were both sentenced to 16 months, according to court documents. Reverend Chu Yiu-ming was also given 16 months, but his sentence was suspended for two years.
Two others received eight-month sentences, and two more had their sentences suspended. Another activist was ordered to perform 200 hours of community service, and a ninth defendant’s sentencing was postponed for health reasons.
The activists had faced up to seven years in prison, but many, including the defendants, had argued the charges were politically motivated.
Joshua Wong, the student protest leader who served six-months in 2017, told TIME, “Political prisoners have become the norm [in Hong Kong].”
Outside the courthouse, the defendants were met by supporters toting yellow umbrellas, which became a symbol of the 2014 protests after they were used to deflect police tear gas and pepper spray. The demonstrations came to be known as the “Umbrella Movement.”
The non-violent street demonstrations began with the “Occupy Central” campaign that called for a brief sit-in to press for democratic reforms, including the direct election of Hong Kong’s leader. Instead, it spawned a 79-day encampment in front of government headquarters that incorporated a wide array of grievances, including fears of disappearing political freedoms after the former British colony’s 1997 handover to China.
Police eventually dissolved the protest movement, which did not win any concessions but did pose a formidable challenge to Beijing’s authority.
“Freedom of expression in Hong Kong has deteriorated significantly in the past few years, and [Wednesday’s] sentencing only adds to that,” said Maya Wang, a senior researcher on China for Human Rights Watch. “It sends a message that there are serious consequences for promoting democracy peacefully.”
Earlier this month, Hong Kong lawmakers put forward a controversial extradition bill that would allow fugitives to be transferred to mainland China to stand trial, stoking further concerns of declining legal protections in the city.
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