Three prominent Hong Kong democracy activists have won an appeal in the territory’s highest court against jail sentences relating to the 2014 “umbrella movement” protests, but were warned that future acts of civil disobedience would be dealt with harshly.
Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were given prison terms ranging from six to eight months in August on charges of “unlawful assembly” for staging a demonstration that sparked 11 weeks of sit-ins in 2014 calling for greater democracy.
A five-judge panel at the court of final appeal said those sentences applied a new standard “retroactively”, and overturned the prison terms. But speaking for the court, the chief justice, Geoffrey Ma, said “elements of disorder or violence must be deterred”, and “fully endorsed” harsher sentences for protests in the future.
Hong Kong’s government has taken an increasingly hard line on dissent in the past year, jailing protesters, banning activists from standing for election over their political views and successfully applying for popularly elected lawmakers to be disqualified.
The judgment was a victory for the young protesters who turned out in their thousands to agitate for greater democracy. But in an increasingly divided Hong Kong, the court’s warning that “it is now necessary to emphasise deterrence and punishment” struck an ominous note.
“Even though today my sentence was reduced, I’m still facing prison for other charges,” Wong said. “Although we won today, Hong Kong is still far from upholding the rule of law, there are still political prisoners and the government is pursuing a political agenda in the courts.”
The jail terms were highly controversial and came after Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed government applied for harsher punishments. The trio had already been given lighter sentences, with Wong and Law completing community service and Chow receiving a suspended prison term.
“The Hong Kong government has redoubled efforts to weaken pro-democracy voices,” said Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government is using this case to see how far it can go in pursuing political prosecutions, and it will inform their strategy going forward.”
“No one should be prosecuted for a peaceful protest,” she added.
In jailing the three activists last year, Judge Wally Yeung argued the sentences were a necessary deterrent to what he called a “sick trend” of anti-government protest.
The trio were nominated for the 2018 Nobel peace prize by a group of US lawmakers last week for their “principled commitment to a free and prosperous Hong Kong. They are an inspiration and their cause has reverberations far beyond their city.”
The UK handed back Hong Kong to China in 1997 under an agreement that promised to safeguard the city’s autonomy from the Communist-ruled mainland and pledged greater freedoms.
Some observers have expressed concern over human rights. Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, painted a bleak picture after a recent fact-finding trip.
“Over the past five years, the freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the basic law, have been increasingly eroded,” Ashdown wrote in the report. “The rule of law is under pressure, human rights are undermined and the city appears no closer to democracy.”
Writing in the Guardian after beginning his prison stint, Wong said: “Being locked up is an inevitable part of our long, exhausting path to democracy. Our bodies are held captive, but our pursuit of freedom cannot be contained.”
The jail terms have already prevented Wong and Law from running in an upcoming byelection for the city’s legislature, where rules prevent anyone sentenced to more than three months in prison from standing for five years.
Wong was jailed for an additional three months in January on a separate charge of failing to leave a protest site during the 2014 sit-in. He had pleaded guilty.
Last month, the government banned Agnes Chow, who founded a political party with Wong and Law, from standing for election because of her party’s pro-democracy manifesto.
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