ROME – Following the sentencing by Chinese officials of three former student leaders of a civil rights movement to between six and eight months in prison, retired Cardinal Joseph Zen has warned that “Hong Kong is sinking!”

“The heavy sentence in this case has shown that the judiciary has become a tool for political repression,” Zen said, known for his fiery criticism of China and its policies of curtailing both political dissent and religious freedom.

The three activists were part of the “Umbrella Movement,” which led civil protests in Hong Kong in 2004, and their sentencing sparked another wave of demonstrations in the former British colony.

Upon news of the city’s Court of Appeal’s decision on August 17, up to 50,000 people took to the streets in Hong Kong to protest against the local government. reports that this was the largest protest in the city since the one that started the Umbrella Movement.

News of the sentencing caused strong backlash inside and outside of the country. On a blog, Zen Ke-kuin of Hong Kong, who led the Hong Kong diocese from 2002 to 2009, commented on the events while visiting the American continent.

The blog entry, titled “I wish I were there now,” concludes with Zen saying that if he will be arrested when he returns to Hong Kong it would be his honor “to accompany my brothers and sisters in prison.”

The decision to imprison Alex Chow, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law for leading a peaceful sit-in that triggered the 79-day Umbrella Movement also caused outrage from representatives of other countries.

A statement signed by 25 foreign dignitaries, ambassadors, civil rights spokesmen and religious leaders – including Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, Myanmar – criticized the decision of the court as “an outrageous miscarriage of justice” and “a death knell for Hong Kong’s rule of law and basic human rights.”

The document released August 21 goes on to call the Umbrella movement “one of the most peaceful and restrained movements of public protest the world has ever seen,” and accuses the local government and judicial system of ruining the ambitions of the three young men.

This sentence “robs three bright, intelligent, principled and courageous young men of more than half a year of their lives and potentially denies them a future in politics or other employment in Hong Kong.”

Wong, who was sentenced with six months in prison, shows no sign of resignation and in a series of tweets said that no matter what the local government does, it will not be able to quiet or quench the fight for civil rights.

“You can lock up our bodies, but not our minds! We want democracy in Hong Kong. And we will not give up. They can silence protests, remove us from the legislature and lock us up. But they will not win the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers. Imprisoning us will not extinguish Hongkongers’ desire for universal suffrage. We are stronger, more determined, and we will win,” says one of Wong’s tweets reported in the statement.

The 25 high-ranking officials and spokesmen from several countries around the world concluded the statement by calling Hong Kong to abide with the “One Country, Two Systems” principles and to the basic law of the land.

“Yesterday was a dark day for Hong Kong and it should be met with international condemnation,” the statement said.

The Hong Kong diocesan Justice and Peace Commission will be collecting letters from all those who wish to express their closeness with the prisoners and has scheduled a Mass in order to pray for justice and peace.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-Shing of Hong Kong will be saying the Mass on August 31.