Hong Kong―Hong Kong’s leading independence activist was jailed for six years Monday for his involvement in some of the city’s worst protest violence for decades.
Edward Leung was convicted in May of rioting during the 2016 running battles with police, when demonstrators hurled bricks torn up from pavements and set rubbish alight in the commercial district of Mong Kok.
Handing down his jail term, Judge Anthea Pang said Leung actively participated in the riots and described his actions as “wanton and vicious”.
The 27-year-old was already in custody after pleading guilty in January to a separate charge of assaulting a police officer during the clashes. He was sentenced to one year in jail on that count, with the two terms to be served concurrently.
The 2016 protest began as a seemingly innocuous rally to protect illegal hawkers from health inspectors, but it quickly morphed into an outpouring of anger against authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.
At the forefront of the clashes were young “localists”, a term coined for the radical groups promoting a split from mainland China that grew out of the failure of the massive pro-democracy rallies in 2014 to win concessions from Beijing on political reform.
At the time, Leung was the head of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous and a rising star on the political scene as the fledgling independence movement gathered momentum, infuriating Beijing.
Pang said the protesters appeared to be “sincere, earnest but wrong-headed people” with strong convictions.
They “will stop at nothing to impose those views” on society, she said, which Hong Kong cannot tolerate as it poses “extremely great danger”.
Leung looked calm throughout the hearing and waved at supporters―some of whom reacted emotionally to the sentence―before being led away.
Two other protesters were sentenced alongside Leung to seven years and three and a half years in prison.
Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, slammed Leung’s sentence, which was handed down under the public order ordinance. He said “the vague definitions in the legislation are open to abuse and do not conform” with international standards.
“It is disappointing to see that the legislation is now being used politically to place extreme sentences on the pan-democrats and other activists,” Patten said in a statement issued by Hong Kong Watch, an NGO that monitors the city’s freedoms.
At least 16 people have already been jailed over the clashes, with terms of up to four years and nine months for a man convicted of rioting and arson. Unlike Leung, none were known activists.
Police fired warning shots in the air as the unrest worsened and scores of people including officers were injured, with dozens arrested.
It was later dubbed the “Fishball Revolution” after one of the city’s best-loved street snacks.
The defense said Leung, who pleaded not guilty, had no intention to riot but wanted to “protect Hong Kong culture”.
Leung testified his participation in activism was inspired by the pro-democracy slogan “Without resistance, how is there change?” according to local media.
Multiple pro-democracy activists who want a greater say in how the city is run but do not push for full independence have been prosecuted on protest-related charges over the largely peaceful 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Leung is the first high profile activist advocating full independence to come to court.
He was previously barred from standing in legislative elections due to his support for independence as Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government cracks down on any advocacy of a split.
Leung resigned as spokesman of Hong Kong Indigenous and left the group in December last year.
The government’s squeeze on independence campaigners has seen several activists barred from standing for office and others ejected from Hong Kong’s partially elected legislature.
Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who has campaigned for self-determination but not independence, attended the trial Monday.
“Edward Leung’s six-year sentence is the harshest imposed on an opposition activist since 1997, bizarre even in Hong Kong’s present era of political prisoners,” he wrote on Twitter.