Student activist Joshua Wong said on Wednesday he expects to go to jail, as a court in the former British colony prepares to consider an appeal by the government for stiffer sentences for Wong and two other protesters in connection with their actions during the 2014 pro-democracy movement.
The government wants harsher sentences for Wong, now general secretary of the political party Demosisto, former student leader Alex Chow, and ousted lawmaker Nathan Law, for storming a cordoned-off area at government headquarters during the Occupy Central campaign for universal suffrage.
Hong Kong's Court of Appeal is expected to announce its verdict in the case, which initially saw the trio sentenced with community service and suspended jail terms for charges relating to "illegal assembly."
Wong said that the jailing on Tuesday of 13 environmental activists who had already served their community service sentences made him believe that similar treatment will be meted out to the Civic Square protesters.
"Our lawyers have warned us to make mental preparation for immediate imprisonment, because yesterday's sentence review ... was far harsher than anyone thought it would be," Wong said. "Cases of illegal assembly have previously only resulted in sentences of three months at the most."
"Our case is also about protest actions, and it is the same three judges sitting, so I am at least mentally prepared ...I expect to face immediate imprisonment tomorrow," Wong told reporters. "However, I still hope you will encourage Hong Kong people to continue to fight for democracy."
'Never give up'
Rallying his supporters to keep fighting for greater democracy in the city, which was once promised a "high degree of autonomy" by Beijing, Wong later told his followers on Twitter: "In this authoritarian era, we may be worried, anxious, scared; but I hope that you will persist and never give up."
"When those of us who face jail time have yet to give up, how can the rest of you give up?" Wong added, promising to keep up with his studies if imprisoned.
"It is the darkest era of the Hong Kong democratic movement," he wrote.
Last month, Hong Kong's High Court issued a ruling stripping four pan-democratic lawmakers of their seats in the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), paring back an all-important veto power for pro-democratic voices in the chamber and sparking street protests in the former British colony.
The government had asked the High Court to disqualify former democracy protest leader Nathan Law of the Demosisto party, rights activist Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai from Democracy Groundwork and Edward Yiu, who represents the surveying profession, from their seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo).
The decisions have fueled concerns that the city's judicial independence, promised as part of the 1997 handover agreement, now lies in tatters.
Meanwhile, several hundred protesters gathered outside government headquarters in support of the 13 jailed activists, slamming the Department of Justice for using oppressive measures against peaceful protesters and weakening the city's formerly independent judiciary at the behest of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"They didn't commit any crime," former lawmaker and rights activist Leung Kwok-hung told the rally. "They stood up for the oppressed people of the northeastern New Territories, so don't blame them."
Lawmaker and former journalist Raymond Chan called on the government to "truly listen" to the voices of local residents opposing the Northeastern New Territories Development Plan, which, if implemented, will demolish several villages and a large chunk of Hong Kong's remaining farmland.
"I hope people will do everything they can to resist this unjust plan and its incomplete information," Chan said. "People are forced to protest and demonstrate because [the government] isn't listening to them."
"If they paid attention to a letter or a phone call, then why would they need to demonstrate?"
A strong signal
Starry Lee, who heads Hong Kong's largest pro-Beijing party, welcomed the jail terms handed down to 13 activists, rejecting criticism from pan-democratic politicians that the sentences were tantamount to political persecution.
"The court decision sends a strong signal that they have to pay a high price for breaching social order," Lee was quoted as saying by government broadcaster RTHK.
In Taiwan, a former leader of the 2014 Sunflower Movement meanwhile defended the growing solidarity between the island's youth movement and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
"It's definitely not about Taiwan independence activists colluding with Hong Kong independence activists, but naturally Beijing has an agenda here," Lin Feifan told journalists. "They want to turn these two groups into a simplified 'public enemy' ... because then they can pander to nationalists at home and overseas."
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hwa Chun-mei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.