The prominent Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong was released from prison on Monday and immediately vowed to join the protest movement against a controversial Beijing-backed change to extradition laws.
Mr Wong, 22, had been convicted of contempt in relation to his activities leading the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, which blocked major roads and shut down parts of Hong Kong for 79 days.
His release after serving five weeks of a two-month sentence comes amid a fresh political crisis, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam.
Ms Lam again postponed the extradition bill at the weekend, after it triggered some of the most violent clashes between protesters and police in decades.
The bill would make it easier for Hong Kong to extradite suspects to many countries including mainland China. Critics say it will allow Beijing to abduct dissidents for show trials, undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.
After leaving prison, Mr Wong laid flowers at a makeshift memorial outside a shopping mall where a protester fell to his death on Saturday night.
He tweeted: “Hello world and hello freedom. GO HONG KONG!! Withdraw the extradition bill. Carrie Lam step down. Drop all political persecutions.”
And speaking to journalists who mobbed him as he left prison, Mr Wong said he fully endorsed the protests against the extradition bill.
“I will join to fight against this evil law,” he said. Asked about the pressure on the chief executive, he said: “I believe this is the time for her, Carrie Lam the liar, to step down.”
Protest organisers said almost 2 million people turned out on Sunday to demand that Ms Lam resign, in what is becoming the most significant challenge to China’s relationship with the territory since it was handed back by Britain 22 years ago.
The mass rally, which police said drew 338,000 participants at its peak, forced Ms Lam to apologise over her plans to push through the extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face trial.
But on Monday, protest leaders said they would not accept the apology unless a set of demands were met, including the withdrawal of the bill, the release of arrested students, for officials to stop describing Wednesday’s rally as a riot, and for Ms Lam to step down.
Hong Kong opposition politicians echoed the calls for both Ms Lam and the proposed law to go.
“Her government cannot be an effective government, and will have much, much, much difficulties to carry on,” veteran Democratic Party legislator James To told government-funded broadcaster RTHK.
“I believe the central people’s government [in China] will accept her resignation.”
However, the official China Daily newspaper said Beijing’s leaders would continue to back Ms Lam, and lashed out at foreign “meddling” in the crisis.
Its editorial said China’s support for Ms Lam will “not waver, not in the face of street violence nor the ill-intentioned interventions of foreign governments”.
Ms Lam has delayed the bill but it has yet to be completely shelved.
“We cannot accept her apology, it doesn’t remove all our threats,” said social worker Brian Chau, one of several hundred protesters who stayed overnight in the Admiralty district around the government headquarters and legislature.
Some demonstrators cleared rubbish left after the vast but peaceful march while others sang “Hallelujah”, a gospel song that has become the unofficial anthem of protesters against Ms Lam.
The government headquarters will stay closed on Monday, officials said. A group of uniformed police stood by without riot gear, in contrast to their appearance during recent skirmishes with protesters.
Additional reporting by agencies
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