HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong court on Monday sentenced two former lawmakers to four weeks in jail for unlawful assembly inside the legislature while they were still lawmakers, further sapping the energy of political activists in the Chinese-ruled territory.
Baggio Leung, 31, and Yau Wai-ching, 26, along with three assistants, were convicted of the unlawful assembly charge last month for attempting to barge into a room and scuffling with security guards at the Legislative Council in 2016.
Magistrate Wong Sze-lai said during sentencing at the Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts that their actions had “directly damaged the legislature’s integrity,” local broadcaster RTHK reported.
The pair first said they would appeal, but Yau later changed her mind, according to RTHK. Two assistants also chose not to appeal.
Leung and another assistant are expected to be released on bail later on Monday.
Former UK foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, called the prison sentence “deeply disturbing,” according to a press release by the London-based NGO Hong Kong Watch.
It also cited crossbench peer David Alton calling the sentence “a major over-reaction.”
“Imagine if a Member of Parliament were sent to jail for staging a protest inside Parliament,” he said.
The election of Yau and Leung two years ago marked a high for the youth-led movement that championed local issues, though some activists had advocated secession from the mainland.
The former British colony is officially part of China but operates with a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” principle.
During the pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” protests in 2014, tens of thousands of demonstrators occupied major highways for over two months demanding full democracy.
Alarmed by the dissent, Beijing’s Communist Party leaders tightened control over the city, discouraging pro-democracy supporters.
Leung and Yau lost much public support after they insulted China during their swearing-in.
The Hong Kong government accused them of making invalid oaths, and a court disqualified them from their posts in 2016.
As court proceedings were underway, the highest body in China’s parliament, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, issued a controversial legal interpretation about oath-taking, which triggered a protest by nearly 2,000 lawyers against Beijing’s “interference.”
Hong Kong’s most high-profile student activist, Joshua Wong, was jailed for roughly two months for unlawful assembly before he was freed in February by Hong Kong’s top court, which warned that future offenders would be subject to harsher sentences.
Hong Kong laws define unlawful assembly as one where three or more people conduct themselves in a “disorderly, intimidating, insulting or provocative manner” likely to cause others to reasonably fear “a breach of the peace.”
It is “immaterial” if the original assembly was lawful if the people assembled ended up behaving in such a manner, the law stated.
The maximum jail term for a conviction is 5 years of imprisonment.
Reporting by Bobby Yip and Venus Wu; Writing by Venus Wu; editing by Jacqueline Wong and Simon Cameron-Moore