Hong Kong appeal court frees three democracy leaders

Hong Kong court frees 'umbrella movement' leaders

Hong Kong court frees 'umbrella movement' leaders

Hong Kong's highest court has declared that the three pro-democracy leaders, who were sentenced to jail past year for their role in the 2014 protests, could walk free.

Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law, walk out from the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong on February 6, 2018.

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 ruled the activists should serve community service and a suspended sentence 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 Umbrella Movement went on to block major roads for 79 days in a push for full democracy.

Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said the court had corrected an injustice.

The highest court said the appeals court "erred in dispensing with the need to consider other sentencing options", in meting out punishment against the three.

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But they warned that similar protests in the future would be treated as acts of violence under new criteria.

The nomination letter said it was in recognition of their "peaceful efforts to bring political reform and self determination to Hong Kong and protect the autonomy and freedom guaranteed (to) Hong Kong in the Sino-British Joint Declaration". However, it also said this ruling should not be retrospective and therefore could not be applied to the three activists.

"According to the judgement, maybe more activists will be locked up", said Wong outside court after the ruling. "At the same time it's not the time for any congratulations or celebrations".

Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says the decision could "be used by police to restrict freedom of expression", with any public political gathering subject to a "fluid" definition of unlawful assembly. "In such a case involving violence, a deterrent sentence may be called for and will not be objectionable on the ground that it creates a "chilling effect" on the exercise of a constitutional right".

Last week a dozen US lawmakers nominated Wong, Law, and Chow along with Hong Kong's entire pro-democracy movement for the Nobel Peace Prize, in an effort to recognize what they said were peaceful efforts to bring political reform to Hong Kong and uphold its rule of law and human rights.

The court of final appeal has now quashed the jail terms.

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