HONG KONGHONG KONG (Reuters) - Three protesters from Hong Kong's radical youth opposition were jailed on Monday for taking part in a violent unrest, receiving the harshest sentences handed down to democracy activists since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Edward Leung, 27, one of the leaders of a movement advocating Hong Kong's independence from China, was jailed for six years for rioting and assaulting police in a 2016 overnight protest that turned violent. He was found guilty of rioting by a jury and had pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer.
Two other activists, Lo Kin-man and Wong Ka-kui, were jailed 7 and 3.5 years respectively for rioting.
About 130 people, mostly police, were injured when masked protesters tossed bricks and set trash cans alight to vent their anger against what they saw as mainland Chinese encroachment on the city's autonomy and freedoms. The government quickly labeled the overnight unrest a "riot".
Leung has supported Hong Kong's outright secession from China given Beijing's perceived erosion of the "one country two systems" principle granting the city a high degree of autonomy since it was handed from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
It wasn't immediately clear if he would appeal against the sentence.
Leung appeared calm upon hearing High Court Judge Anthea Pang announce the sentence, while murmurs of disbelief rippled through a crowd of about 150 activists and supporters watching a live broadcast outside the courtroom.
Pang condemned the "severe" violence of the riot, which she said had caused "great danger" to those at the scene, and which warranted the imposition of a strict deterrent sentence.
"The court absolutely does not allow livelihood or political disputes to be expressed through acts of violence," she said.
Rioting in Hong Kong is defined under the city's Public Order Ordinance as an assembly of three or more people where any person "commits a breach of the peace".
This offence, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years behind bars, was last amended in 1970, a few years after a months-long pro-Communist riot against British rule killed at least 50 people, including children.
Hong Kong's most high-profile democracy activist, Joshua Wong, described the sentence on Twitter as harsh under "Hong Kong's present era of political prisoners".
Wong himself was convicted of "unlawful assembly" under the Public Order Ordinance and served about two months in jail before the city's top court quashed the imprisonment sentences in an appeal.
Leung's sentence was also slammed by some international voices including Hong Kong's last British governor Chris Patten.
Patten noted that the Public Order Ordinance carried vague definitions that were being used against a slew of local activists since the "Umbrella Movement" protests paralyzed major roads in the city in late 2014.
"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 via the London based NGO, Hong Kong Watch.
Geoffrey Nice QC, a barrister who led the prosecution in the genocide trial of former Serbian and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, called the jail term against Leung "unjustified".
But a police representative disagreed Leung's case amounted to political persecution.
"The sentence reflects the gravity of the offence," said chief inspector of the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau, Tse Tsz-kwan.
Although the court case does not deal directly with the issue of independence, the sentencing is likely to be seen as a broader warning against radical youth activism.
Leung, then a student of philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, came to public prominence after the 2016 protests, and contesting a legislative council by-election that year. He was barred from running for another election later that year.
China has repeatedly slammed the independence movement, fearful of the idea catching on in the mainland. President Xi Jinping warned last year that any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty would be an act that crosses a "red line".
Leung's sentence came one week after two other pro-independence activists and former lawmakers were sentenced to one month in jail for assembling illegally in the legislature while still in public office.
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Additional reporting by Holly Chik; Editing by James Pomfret and Michael Perry)