US Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced Hong Kong’s “politically-motivated” decision to sentence publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and multiple opposition lawmakers to prison for their roles in the 2019 mass protests that rocked the city for a year.
“Beijing and Hong Kong authorities are targeting Hong Kongers for doing nothing more than exercising protected rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech,” Blinken said in a statement on Friday.
“Today’s sentences are yet another example of how the PRC and Hong Kong authorities undermine protected rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration in an effort to eliminate all forms of dissent,” he said.
Five opposition figures received jail sentences of eight to 18 months, and five others were handed suspended sentences, including Hong Kong Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming - the harshest punishments yet for prominent opposition leaders over the mass protests.
“The seven pro-democracy leaders – Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai, Albert Ho, Margaret Ng, Cyd Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan, and Leung Kwok-hung – participated in a peaceful assembly attended by 1.7 million Hong Kongers,” Blinken said. “The sentences handed down are incompatible with the non-violent nature of their actions.”
Also sentenced were former Democratic Party lawmakers Au Nok-hin and Yeung Sum, and the veteran opposition politician Leung Yiu-chung.
Blinken’s comments were the latest sign of the bipartisan anger in Washington over Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, including the imposition of the National Security Law, the sweeping electoral changes that critics say will wipe out any meaningful political opposition in the city, and the jailing of peaceful protestors.
In US President Joe Biden ’s first phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in February, Biden raised the topic of the “crackdown in Hong Kong”, according to the White House, and lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly cited the situation in Hong Kong as a key reason behind the rapidly deteriorating US-China relationship.
American diplomats, along with their counterparts from the European Union, Germany, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Sweden, attended the sentencing, which was condemned by one protest organizer as a “white terror” by the government to silence peaceful dissent in the city.
In a joint statement, Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley and Massachusetts Democratic Congressman James McGovern said the sentences “are clearly political prosecutions”.
“Few predicted that there would one day be political prisoners in Hong Kong, and that is now sadly the case, with more to come under the draconian National Security Law,” said the chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), which helps oversee congressional China policy.
“We stand ready to legislate for the people of Hong Kong and urge the Biden Administration and the international community to hold accountable those responsible for political prosecutions in Hong Kong.”
Blinken added that the people of Hong Kong “are entitled to the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Joint Declaration and Basic Law”.
“We will continue to stand with Hong Kongers as they respond to Beijing’s assault on these freedoms and autonomy, and we will not stop calling for the release of those detained or imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms,” he said.