HONG KONG — Jimmy Lai has skewered the Chinese Communist Party for decades. The 73-year-old founder of a fiercely pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, Mr. Lai helped give voice to critics of the city’s leaders and their bosses in Beijing, winning friends in Washington and other places along the way.
Now, for one of his acts of defiance, Mr. Lai is going to prison.
A Hong Kong court on Friday sentenced Mr. Lai to 12 months in prison for his role in a peaceful demonstration in 2019 against Beijing’s encroachment over the semiautonomous territory. Three activists and a labor leader were given sentences of eight to 18 months for their role in the protest.
Other prominent opposition figures received suspended sentences, meaning they would avoid being put behind bars if they are not convicted of another crime in the next two years. They included Martin Lee, an 82-year-old lawyer who is often called Hong Kong’s “father of democracy,” who was given an 11-month suspended term.
The sentences fell short of the maximum of five years in prison the defendants had faced. Still, they sent an unmistakable message that activism carries severe risks for even the most internationally prominent opposition figures. Supporters of the defendants say the sentences are the latest sign of the fundamental transformation that Beijing has sought to impose on Hong Kong, once a bastion of free speech, to silence dissent.
China’s ruling Communist Party has long regarded Mr. Lee and Mr. Lai as troublemakers. The penalties meted out now allow Beijing to cast them as criminals, bolstering its defiance of foreign criticism and the sanctions that the United States imposed after the crackdown on Hong Kong.
Mr. Lai’s legal jeopardy may be just beginning. He faces additional charges, including under a sweeping national security law, in which political offenses for defying Beijing are vaguely defined and carry heavier sentences.
The sentences are the latest escalation in a broader repression that has effectively silenced the political opposition and crippled its prospects.
“It’s excessive, entirely out of proportion. What have they done to deserve such severe punishments?” said Fernando Cheung, a former lawmaker. “It was a peaceful demonstration for the public to display people’s discontent. All these political leaders have done was walking with the people.”