Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow had their prison sentences struck down by the city’s highest court on February 6. These sentences were issued in relation to the trio’s role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement against the perceived encroachment of Beijing on the unique rights set aside for Hong Kong after the British handover in 1997.
More specifically, the court found Wong and his compatriots guilty for the purported violence involved in the storming of Civic Square, the east wing of Hong Kong’s Central Government Office. According to the New York Times, Wong and Law were sentenced to community service while Chow received a suspended three-week jail term in 2016, both for their involvement in the movement.
Prosecutors appealed for harsher penalties and the court granted their requests in August 2017, according to a CNN report. The three faced terms ranging from six to eight months. Although they were released on bail, their sentences still barred them from pursuing public office for five years.
On February 6, the trio appealed their sentences. According to South China Morning Post, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said before handing down the 66-page judgement “that it was right for the Court of Appeal to send the message that unlawful assemblies involving violence, even the relatively low degree of violence that occurred in the present appeals, will not be condoned, and convictions will justifiably attract prison sentences.”
The court made clear that in delivering jail time to Wong, Law, and Chow, the lower court had established a new set of guidelines that allowed for stricter sentences, though it also clarified that it was inappropriate to apply those new sentencing guidelines retroactively. The judgement stated that non-custodial sentences originally handed down by the trial magistrate were not “manifestly inadequate” since at the time there was no precedent for jail sentences being applied for this type of cases. Accordingly, the three had their prison sentences thrown out, but the court said that future offenders should expect stiffer punishments.
The new set guidelines left Wong, Law, and Chow in dismay despite their legal victory. Wong said to Radio Television Hong Kong that possibly “more activists will be locked up because of this harsh judgement.”
Ultimately, as an article from The New York Times suggests, the verdict raises questions about the ability of Hong Kong’s Judiciary to protect itself from the control of the Chinese Government and to safeguard the rights of Hongkongers as set out in the Basic Law. The judges noted that it was not their role to become involved in any political debate, but rather simply to apply the law.
This ruling comes in the context of last week, where 12 members of the United States Congress nominated Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow for the Nobel Peace Prize.