Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal on Tuesday revoked the prison sentences handed down to three former student activists for their role in the city’s 2014 pro-democracy movement, but warned that protesters may now expect harsher sentences in future.
Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow lodged their appeal with the Court of Final Appeal after the Court of Appeal increased their noncustodial sentences for the storming of Civic Square outside government headquarters on Sept. 26, 2014 to prison sentences at the request of the city’s justice department.
Last August, Wong was handed a six-month jail term, while Law got eight months and Chow seven after Hong Kong’s justice department complained that the original sentences were too lenient and applied for a review.
The Court of Final Appeal said that sentencing guidelines for magistrates have now been changed to create more of a “deterrent” to public protesters since the Occupy Central movement drew hundreds of thousands onto the city’s streets over 79 days in 2014.
But it said it wasn’t appropriate to apply the new guidelines to Wong, Law and Chow retroactively.
“The Court unanimously allowed all three appeals, quashed the sentences of imprisonment imposed by the Court of Appeal and reinstated those imposed by the magistrate,” it said.
But it warned that “future offenders involved in large scale unlawful assemblies involving violence will be subject to the new guidelines rightly laid down by the Court of Appeal.”
The court said it rejected the government’s claim that the initial sentences were inadequate.
“At the time of the sentences, there was no … guidance requiring an immediate custodial sentence for a case of this nature, and a community service order was a sentence frequently passed in respect of unlawful assemblies,” it said in a statement.
It added that the use of civil disobedience as a form of political protest can be taken into account by Hong Kong’s courts, but that it generally carries with it the expectation of punishment if laws are broken.
Wong, Law and Chow were jailed last August in a move widely criticized as a form of political retaliation and served varying lengths of their sentences before being released on bail pending appeal.
The sentences were linked to their role in the occupation of the closed-off Civic Square at the start of the Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign for fully democratic elections, which they have always argued was entirely peaceful.
Wong, who could still face jail again in connection with a separate case linked to the clearing of the 2014 protests, told reporters after leaving the court on Tuesday that the decision was a “harsh judgement wrapped up like candy.”
“My mood is still quite heavy today, partly because I still have another case on appeal where I am waiting for a decision, so I there is still a possibility I could go back to jail to complete that sentence,” he said.
“But also because the Court of Final Appeal has confirmed that sentencing guidelines for civil disobedience campaigns have now been changed in favor of harsher penalties,” Wong said.
Wong was also among 16 activists found guilty of ignoring a court injunction to leave a protest area at the end of the Occupy Central, or Umbrella Movement.
He was handed a three-month prison sentence after pleading guilty, but was then released on bail pending appeal.
Law hit out at the judgment for its acceptance of the claim that the storming of Civic Square was in any way violent.
“The Hong Kong democracy movement has lost a battle, because the Court of Final Appeal judgment found that the occupation of Civil Square was violent,” he said.
“It looks as if we will be facing a higher proportion of prison sentences when carrying out peaceful protests and civil disobedience campaigns in future.”
Chow said the storming of Civic Square would never have happened if Beijing hadn’t ruled out fully democratic elections for Hong Kong in a landmark ruling on Aug. 31, 2014.
While Beijing was prepared in 2014 to allow one person, one vote, it refused to allow public nominations to ballot papers, meaning that all potential candidates would have to be vetted by officials.
“The majority of Hong Kong people have continued to protest extremely peacefully and with restraint in the face of a violent regime, in the wake of the Umbrella Movement,” Chow said.
“The final judgment has been another blow aimed at the people of Hong Kong, but the violence perpetrated by the system is just dropped as if it were nothing,” he said.
‘Green light turned off’
More recently, Chinese and Hong Kong officials have said repeatedly that nobody who supports the idea of independence or greater autonomy for Hong Kong can be considered for public office in the city.
Law, who was among six lawmakers to lose their seats on the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) after their oaths of allegiance were judged invalid, said he believes his political career is now over.
He said the barring of would-be Demosisto party election candidate Agnes Chow by election officials last week had underlined the situation.
“The green light for my political future has already been turned off, what with my being stripped of my LegCo seat and the barring of Agnes Chow,” Law said. “A political career no longer figures in my plans.”
“But what worries me more is that the entire atmosphere across society has gotten more conservative,” he said. “These limitations on demonstrations by citizens will only become stricter, and people will gradually start to accept them.”
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.