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Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, Nathan Law: Hong Kong's Icons Of Democracy And The Struggle For Freedom

21/08/2017 16:43 BST | Updated 21/08/2017 17:28 BST

I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after its handover to China. I know Hong Kong's political prisoners Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow personally. For those two reasons alone, and because I care passionately about freedom, human rights and the rule of law, Thursday 17 August was a dark day for me, and an even darker one for Hong Kong.

The imprisonment of Joshua, Nathan and Alex for leading the Umbrella Movement, one of the most peaceful mass protests in modern history, is one of the most grotesque miscarriages of justice I have seen. Not in its severity - I know political prisoners in mainland China, Burma, East Timor, The Maldives and North Korea who have faced sentences 10, 20, in some cases even a hundred times longer, in conditions far worse than Hong Kong's jails - but in its symbolism. Hong Kong used to be the one part of China that was still free, where people could still protest without fear, where the rule of law and basic rights still meant something. No longer.

The Hong Kong government - at Beijing's bidding - has trampled on the rule of law. A year ago, Joshua and Nathan were sentenced to community service - 80 and 120 hours respectively - which they served. But in violation of the principle of "double jeopardy" - which prevents a person being tried for the same 'crime' twice - the government sought a tougher sentence. Last Thursday the Court of Appeal jailed Joshua for six months and Nathan for eight. Alex, who had been given a three-week suspended sentence a year ago, is now serving a seven-month sentence.

In June 2014, the Chinese government issued a White Paper on Hong Kong declaring that Beijing has "comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong" - instead of "the high degree of autonomy" provided for in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong's Basic Law. China's regime also announced that Hong Kong's judges are merely "administrators" who are "subject to oversight by the central government". It is therefore clear that Beijing has successfully gained control of Hong Kong's courts. In April 2016, Kemal Bokhary, a retired judge, said that his warning, made four years previously, of "a storm of unprecedented ferocity" facing the judiciary has now come about. The independence of the judiciary, a pillar of Hong Kong, has now been exposed for all to see as a charade, at the beck and call of the Chinese Communist Party.

Of the trio, Nathan was the first I got to know. Just under a year ago, aged 23, he came to London, as Hong Kong's youngest elected member of the Legislative Council. He was proud of his role but with no arrogance - he wanted to serve his constituents and fight for Hong Kong's freedoms. I took him to meet Parliamentarians, including the Speaker of the House of Commons, and everyone was deeply impressed by his conviction and maturity. He was a great representative of Hong Kong - smart and inspiring, yet humble, fun and eager to learn.

I met Joshua briefly the previous year, and was in contact with him when he gave evidence to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which resulted in a damning report - The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016. I came to know Joshua better earlier this year when he came to London and asked me to help arrange meetings. Joshua has been on the front-cover of TIME, appeared on countless news channels, is the subject of a Netflix documentary film and has met international politicians such as US Senator Marco Rubio and Congressional Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Hong Kong's former Governor Chris Patten put it well when he met him for the first time and Joshua told him what an honour it was. Lord Patten laughed and said: "You're honoured? On the contrary, it is absolutely my honour." In a letter to the Financial Times Lord Patten described last Thursday's verdict as "deplorable".

I met Alex a few weeks later, in a student bar. He expressed his quiet, thoughtful, intelligent, simple conviction that Hong Kong was promised certain values when the territory was handed over to China twenty years ago. A deep, passionate, dignified but not unreasonable belief that the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong's constitution known as the Basic Law provides for the protection of human rights, the rule of law and - by 2017 - universal suffrage. And a courteous, intelligent, unflinching but not unthinking burning desire to defend Hong Kong's autonomy under the principle of "one country, two systems". Those are the simple values for which Joshua, Nathan and Alex stand. And it is for those values that they have been jailed.

Those values are exhibited in messages Joshua and Alex issued immediately upon sentencing. In a statement, Alex urged supporters not to condemn the judges. "Please let us sow altogether, with love, courage, tenderness and care to the earth and fight back for dignity, life, and the bright future we deserve to have," he wrote. In a tweet Joshua wrote: "You can lock up our bodies, but not our minds!"

Of course Joshua, Nathan and Alex are not alone. Thirteen others were jailed last week for unlawful assembly, and more face trial. Such injustice is an outrage. Even for those who may have broken the law, a fine, community service or a few days in detention might be acceptable. But months or years behind bars, disqualifying them from future political office for five years and from most employment opportunities, reeks of a political vendetta that strikes a nail in the coffin of Hong Kong's freedoms. It is Beijing's agenda to eliminate the democratic opposition in Hong Kong.

The international community must speak out - and stop kowtowing to China. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration the United Kingdom has a particular responsibility to do so. The United States must implement the Bill introduced by Senator Marco Rubio, to defend Hong Kong's democracy, and the European Union must similarly act.

Joshua, Nathan and Alex were jailed a little over a month after the death of China's Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo. "In the past," said activist Derek Lam, "when we chant 'release political prisoners,' we're referring to [those in China] ... but now it's Hong Kong." In previous months they had already endured sustained attack. They had faced physical assault, been described by pro-Beijing media as "race traitors", and Nathan was removed from his seat in the legislature simply for quoting Mahatmas Gandhi when he took his oath. As 25 eminent international figures said in a joint statement, the three political prisoners now behind bars deserve to be honoured, not imprisoned. They may well be going down a well-trodden path of dissent and imprisonment, in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. Their names will be remembered long after their jailors' have been forgotten. It is now up to others to continue their struggle.