Hong Kong activists' sentences overturned

Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were jailed in August a year ago for their role in the mass pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests of 2014 after Hong Kong's government pushed for more severe sentences.

In a unanimous decision, a panel of five judges of the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) allowed Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang to walk free, although they warned against future acts of civil obedience, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

In what was seen as a highly controversial decision, the Department of Justice retried the case past year, seeking harsher penalties; Wong, Law, and Chow were sentenced to six- to eight- month prison terms.

Before that, a magistrate's court had judged the activists should serve community service for a charge of "unlawful assembly" after they and others stormed into a fenced-off area in front of government headquarters in September 2014.

The 2014 protests, which saw activists block major thoroughfares for 11 weeks, fizzled out but spawned a youth-led opposition movement that gained political traction while facing increasing resistance from Hong Kong's Beijing-backed government.

The court quashed the increased sentences Tuesday finding that the Court of Appeal exceeded its authority in ascribing "a different weight to a factor properly taken into account by the sentencing judge in arriving at a sentence that is otherwise within the range of sentences appropriate for the offence".

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But while Tuesday's judgement found in favour of the activists, it also endorsed the view of the appeal court that unlawful assembly involving violence must be deterred, saying even the "relatively low" degree of violence in the trio's case could in future lead to jail terms.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" agreement that ensured its freedoms, including a separate legal system.

"It's not a time for celebration... What we are up against is the court taking a very narrow definition of non-violent civil disobedience actions", said Wong.

Wong lamented the latest ruling, calling it a "sugar-coated" and "harsh" punishment. "We must urge people to continue to fight for democracy".

Amnesty International's Hong Kong director, Mabel Au, said in a statement that the court had "corrected an injustice" but added that "all politically motivated prosecutions aimed at silencing those promoting democracy in Hong Kong must be dropped". The ruling "set a risky precedent for sending people to prison for protesting in the future", says Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
 
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