Three of Hong Kong’s most influential activists were sentenced Thursday to six to eight months in prison for their roles in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, a major setback for the city’s democracy movement. 

The court issued the new, harsher sentences for Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law after prosecutors appealed lighter penalties handed down last year. Wong and Law were initially sentenced to community service, while Chow received a suspended sentence.

Some in the semiautonomous city saw the government’s appeal as evidence of Beijing’s creeping influence on Hong Kong courts. They now worry that the longer sentences signal a renewed crackdown on the pro-democracy camp, particularly its young leaders. 

Wong, 20, will now spend six months in prison, while Law, 24, and Chow, 26, were sentenced to eight and seven months, respectively. The ruling came a day after 13 young campaigners were sentenced, also on appeal, to 13 months in prison for storming the city’s legislative assembly in June 2014.

Student democracy activists Nathan Law, right, and Joshua Wong speak to the media outside Hong Kong's High Court on Thursday. (Vernon Yuen/European Pressphoto Agency)

“This is a watershed moment for Hong Kong. It now has political prisoners,” said Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “For anyone thinking of protesting, the prospect of a harsh jail sentence will now loom over them.”

Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said, “The relentless and vindictive pursuit of student leaders using vague charges smacks of political payback by the authorities.”

Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the city’s democracy movement has been fighting hard to protect the rights and freedoms guaranteed under “one country, two systems” and to fight for genuine universal suffrage. Each year, however, it becomes clearer that their vision is at odds with Beijing’s plans. 

In the fall of 2014, anger over a government “white paper” on Hong Kong led to protests that grew into the Umbrella Movement, a dramatic, 79-day occupation of the heart of the city.

The months-long demonstration ended without a significant concession from Hong Kong’s leaders or their allies in Beijing. And in the years since, the central government has moved to tighten, not loosen, its grip on the former British colony.

Last year, Law was elected to serve in Hong Kong’s legislature. In July, he and three other legislators lost their jobs because they had modified the text of their oath of office.

Their disqualifications cost Hong Kong’s opposition camp their veto power, making it more difficult for them to take on establishment politicians backed by Beijing. After Thursday’s sentencing, Wong, Law and Chow will be ineligible to run for the legislative council for five years. 

With the political deck stacked in its favor, Beijing now appears to be focusing on influencing courts, which are supposed to be independent, rights groups warn. 

“From the initial choice to prosecute these young democrats through to today's hearing, these cases have been shot through by politics, not law,” said Wang of Human Rights Watch. “That Hong Kong’s courts increasingly appear to operate as mainland courts do is clear evidence that ‘one country, two systems’ is on the ropes — with ominous consequences for all.”

Demosisto, the pro-democracy party Wong helped found, issued a statement condemning the Chinese government’s treatment of activists and calling on the people of Hong Kong to stand up for the democratic cause. 

“Demosisto humbly invites Hong Kong citizens, especially those who wish to escape from politics, to rally their courage in face of the challenges ahead,” the statement read. “We will keep calm and carry on with our principle of nonviolence, standing hand in hand with Hong Kong people in the fight for democracy and freedom.” 

On the eve on his resentencing, Wong said he hoped to call attention to Hong Kong’s cause.

“Nobody wants to go to prison,” he said. “I hope that our commitment will not be wasted, that it will be worth it, valuable and trigger more people to care about Hong Kong.”

Luna Lin reported from Beijing.