Hong Kong activists including Joshua Wong in custody after guilty protest plea

(From left) Activists Agnes Chow, Ivan Lam and Joshua Wong arrive for their trial at West Kowloon Magistrates Court in Hong Kong, on Nov 23, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Three young Hong Kong dissidents including Joshua Wong were remanded into custody on Monday (Nov 23) after pleading guilty to inciting a rally during last year's pro-democracy protests, deepening the crackdown against Beijing's critics.

Hong Kong was convulsed by seven straight months of often violent anti-government rallies last year in which millions took to the streets. The protesters' five demands were for an independent probe into allegations of police brutality; retraction of characterisation that some hardcore protesters are rioters; amnesty for arrested protesters; universal suffrage; and a full withdrawal of the extradition Bill that sparked last year's unrest. The Bill was later scrapped.

Wong, 24, was prosecuted alongside fellow activists Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow over a protest which took place last summer outside the city police headquarters.

"We will continue to fight for freedom - and now is not the time for us to kowtow to Beijing and surrender," Wong told reporters on his way to court.

'Add oil!'

Once inside, Wong pleaded guilty to inciting and organising an illegal assembly. Lam, 26, pleaded guilty to incitement while Chow, 23, admitted inciting and joining the protest.

All three were remanded into custody pending sentencing on Dec 2, meaning a jail term is all but guaranteed.

The maximum sentence a magistrate's court can hand down is three years.

"Everyone hang in there. I know it's tougher for you to remain out there," Wong shouted inside court.

Small groups of supporters surrounded their prison van as they were driven away, shouting "Add oil!" and "No rioters, only tyranny!" Add oil is a popular phrase of encouragement in Cantonese.

Wong and Lam were later filmed leaving a police van, handcuffed together, and entering a detention facility.

'Mentally prepared'

Despite his youth, Wong has already spent time in prison for leading democracy protests and told reporters that he was ready to return.

"Emotionally, I am reluctant in every way to be jailed, but rationally I have absolutely no space to complain in comparison with many others," he said outside court, in a reference to the hundreds of protest-linked prosecutions already concluded.

Chow appeared less self-assured.

"If sentenced, this will be my first time in prison," she wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday. "While I say I have mentally prepared for this, I am still a bit scared."

Wong became an activist when he was in his early teens, organising successful rallies in 2012 against plans to make Hong Kong's education system more "patriotic" and similar to the mainland.

In 2014, he and Chow helped inspire and lead the "Umbrella Movement" - a 79-day occupation of three busy intersections by a largely student-led campaign calling for universal suffrage.

Wong was jailed for his involvement in those protests, alongside most of that movement's main leaders.

He was still in jail when last year's much larger pro-democracy protests kicked off, though he made appearances at numerous rallies after his release.

However, the protests were deliberately leaderless, mostly organised by social media and encrypted chat forums.

They were also much more violent. Riot police unleashed thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets and were frequently filmed using batons to beat arrested demonstrators.

Their headquarters was besieged on multiple occasions with crowds hurling eggs and daubing its walls with graffiti.

Small groups of hardline activists resorted to rocks, petrol bombs and even bows and arrows.

More than 10,000 people were arrested and most of Hong Kong's leading activists and opposition figures now face prosecution.

Arrests and gatherings banned

The demonstrations petered out at the start of the year due to fatigue, mass arrests and the coronavirus outbreak.

An anti-pandemic ban on more than four people gathering in public has remained in place for most of this year.

China, on June 30, also imposed a national security law in Hong Kong, making anything Beijing regards as subversion, secession, terrorism or colluding with foreign forces punishable by up to life in prison.

Demosisto, the pro-democracy party that Wong, Lam and Chow were in, disbanded when the security law took effect because their desire for greater self-determination was now illegal.

Pro-democracy lawmakers have also been disqualified and local legislature elections delayed for a year.

The authorities say they have returned much-needed stability to the global financial hub.

Critics say that opposition to Beijing's rule remains widespread despite the lack of street protests.

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