HK top court frees jailed activists

TEPID STEPS::Despite ordering the release of the three activists, the ruling signaled harsher future treatment, saying that even minor violence requires prison time

AP, HONG KONG

Wed, Feb 07, 2018 - Page 1

Hong Kong’s highest court yesterday overturned prison sentences for three young pro-democracy activists convicted for their roles in 2014’s “Umbrella movement” protests.

A panel of five judges sided with Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), Nathan Law (羅冠聰) and Alex Chow (周永康) in their appeal against months-long prison terms for unlawful assembly.

The case sparked controversy, because a magistrate initially gave the three lenient sentences, but the justice secretary requested a review that resulted in prison time ranging from six to eight months, raising worries about judicial independence and rule of law in the territory.

The Court of Final Appeal’s ruling was an unexpected victory for the youthful opposition movement, but the activists said they feared it would have a chilling effect on future protests, because the judges also said they endorsed the lower court’s view that a new, tougher sentencing approach was needed for unlawful assemblies.

“Hong Kong is on the whole a peaceful society, and elements of disorder and violence must be deterred,” Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma (馬道立) said.

“Even a low degree of violence” requires an immediate prison sentence, he said, but added that it would be inappropriate to retroactively apply harsher penalties to the three, who were initially given community service or suspended sentences according to sentencing guidelines at the time.

“Maybe more and more activists will be locked up because of this harsh judgement,” Wong, 21, told reporters on the courthouse steps after the decision. “We just urge people to continue to fight for democracy. At the same time it’s not the time for any congratulations or celebrations.”

Wong might still end up behind bars. He is also appealing a three-month prison sentence for a separate contempt case related to the 2014 protests.