• AFP-JIJI, REUTERS

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Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow was released Saturday from prison on the second anniversary of the city’s huge democracy rallies, with police out in force and protests now all but banned.

Some 2,000 officers have been placed on standby after social media calls for residents to commemorate the failed democracy demonstrations.

Authorities have kept a coronavirus prohibition on public gatherings despite the city recording just three local infections in the last month.

A Beijing-imposed national security has also criminalized much dissent and most of the city’s democracy leaders have been arrested, jailed or fled overseas.

On Saturday morning, one of those figures walked free from prison.

Chow, 24, was mobbed by waiting media but made no comment as she was driven away.

Chow hails from a generation of activists who cut their teeth in politics as teenagers and became an inspiration for those who chafe under Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

She spent about seven months behind bars for her role in a 2019 protest outside the city’s police headquarters. Fellow youth activists Joshua Wong and Ivan Lam were sentenced in the same case.

Pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow us released from prison Saturday after serving nearly seven months for her role in an unauthorized assembly during Hong Kong's 2019 anti-government protests. | REUTERS
Pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow us released from prison Saturday after serving nearly seven months for her role in an unauthorized assembly during Hong Kong’s 2019 anti-government protests. | REUTERS

Fluent in Japanese, Chow has a sizable following in Japan, particularly on social media and had traveled to the country frequently before her arrest. She often tweeted in Japanese and has been dubbed the “goddess of democracy” by Japan’s media.

Chow’s release comes at a sensitive time.

Two years ago on June 12, thousands of protesters surrounded the city’s legislature in an attempt to stop the passage of a bill that could have allowed extraditions to mainland China’s opaque judicial system.

Riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the huge crowds.

Footage of the clashes deepened public anger, and fueled what became an increasingly violent movement calling for full democracy that raged for seven straight months.

Huge crowds rallied week after week in the most serious challenge to China’s rule since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover.

Beijing’s leaders have dismissed the call for democracy, portraying those who protested as stooges of “foreign forces” trying to undermine China.

They have since overseen a sweeping crackdown that has successfully curbed dissent and radically transformed the once outspoken semi-autonomous city.

The spear tip of that crackdown is the national security law.

More than 100 people have been arrested under the new law, including Chow, although she has not yet been charged.

Dozens have been charged, including jailed pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

Most have been denied bail and they face up to life in prison if convicted.

Protests have been all but illegal for the last year in Hong Kong but anniversary events can focus attention.

On Friday, two activists from Student Politicism, a pro-democracy group, were arrested on suspicion of advertising an unauthorized assembly.

Last week, authorities banned an annual candlelight vigil to commemorate victims of Beijing’s deadly 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

But many Hong Kongers still quietly signaled defiance by turning on mobile phone lights and lighting candles that evening.

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