HONG KONG -- Hong Kong democracy activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow are headed to prison for their roles in an unauthorized demonstration near police headquarters last year, as local authorities step up a crackdown on political dissidents.
Wong on Wednesday was sentenced to 13.5 months in jail, while Chow was given 10 months. The former student leaders -- along with fellow activist Ivan Lam, who received seven months in prison -- last week pleaded guilty to charges related to the protest on June 21, 2019, which occurred amid citywide anti-government demonstrations.
They stood accused of organizing, taking part in and inciting others to participate in an unauthorized assembly. They had faced maximum sentences of three years.
Magistrate Wong Sze-lai noted that although the defendants' guilty pleas could mean more lenient sentences, the fact that they "committed the offense in a joint enterprise under the prevailing circumstances of increasing incidents of social unrest and large-scale public protest... has made the case more serious."
Joshua Wong also faces several other protest-related charges, including participating in unauthorized assemblies in October 2019 and on June 4, 2020, when Hong Kongers gathered for an annual vigil commemorating the violent crackdown on protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Meanwhile, Chow is accused of inciting secession -- a charge under the new national security law. That could lead to her extradition to mainland China for trial and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Before a hearing Nov. 23, the 24-year-old Wong vowed to continue his activism despite what he called "political suppression." He is set to serve his fourth jail term in three years.
"I want to be frank that, in the face of uncertainties, I just feel uneasy and anxious," Wong wrote in an open letter during his detention. "However, as I said when I stepped into the dock in the courtroom, 'Hang in everyone, I know the situation that the people outside face will be more difficult. Keep fighting.'"
He called attention to 12 Hong Kong activists who were arrested this past summer and detained in mainland China as they attempted to flee to Taiwan by boat.
"It's not the end of the fight," Wong said in a statement on Twitter, released by his lawyer, after the court handed down the sentences. "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."
Chow, who turns 24 on Thursday, told friends visiting the detention center that she was "prepared" to go to prison for the first time, although she was "a bit worried" and disappointed that she would be unable to celebrate her birthday with loved ones, according to her Facebook page.
In the courtroom on Wednesday, Chow burst into tears as the sentence was read.
Wong and Chow were first thrust into the public spotlight in 2012, when they protested against a controversial national education curriculum that critics described as "Beijing's brainwashing tool." The two later became faces of Hong Kong's democracy movement, following their leadership roles in the 2014 Umbrella Movement that called for universal suffrage in the former British colony.
In 2016, the pair co-founded pro-democracy party Demosisto with fellow activist Nathan Law, but they were repeatedly barred from running in local elections. The group was disbanded as the sweeping national security law came into effect on June 30.
Law is now living in exile but continues his advocacy work from afar. In an opinion piece published in The New York Times on Wednesday, Law, along with fellow activist Alex Chow, called for U.S. President-elect Joe Biden "to foster a new China policy that prioritizes human rights over other interests" and to keep pressure on Hong Kong.
In a statement following Wednesday's court decision, Law said that the sentencing was "devastating."
"It shows that the court [has] once again become the suppression tool in favor [of] the authorities," he said. "I hope the international community could voice against this unjust sentencing and demand immediate release of the trio."
Shortly after the jailing of the three activists, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab issued a statement, in which he urged Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to "bring an end to their campaign to stifle opposition."
"Prosecution decisions must be fair and impartial, and the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong must be upheld," he said.
The new security law imposed by Beijing carries criminal penalties of up to life imprisonment for those found guilty of separatism, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign powers.
Hong Kong police continued their crackdown on Wednesday morning, arresting student leader Keith Fong on suspicion of possession of offensive weapons in a public space, among other charges. He was previously detained for purchasing laser pointers, which were widely used against officers in last year's street protests.
Outside West Kowloon Magistrates Court, dozens of the sentenced activists' supporters held handwritten signs in silence. "Free Joshua Wong. Save Hong Kong three activists," one read.
At the same time, a handful of pro-Beijing demonstrators chanted slogans supporting the court's decision. "Damaging Hong Kong. Traitors of the country. Lock them up forever," they shouted as one of them popped open a bottle of sparkling wine.
More than 10,000 people have been arrested over the 2019 rallies, and about 2,200 of them have been prosecuted. No major street protests have taken place since the security law was enacted on June 30, and the coronavirus pandemic has further deterred public gatherings.