Critics cry foul as young Hong Kong democracy leaders get jail

Joshua Wong, 20, Alex Chow, 26, and Nathan Law, 24, were sentenced last year to non-jail terms including community service for unlawful assembly (AP Photo/Vincent Yu) Related News

* Joshua Wong jailed for six months for unlawful assembly
* Jail terms disqualifies trio from running for seats for 5 years
* Terms slammed amid accusations of political interference

A Hong Kong appeals court jailed three leaders of the Chinese-ruled city’s democracy movement for six to eight months on Thursday, dealing a blow to the youth-led push for universal suffrage and prompting accusations of political interference.

The jail terms will curtail the political ambitions of the trio, disqualifying them from running for seats in the financial hub’s legislature for the next five years.

Joshua Wong, 20, Alex Chow, 26, and Nathan Law, 24, were sentenced last year to non-jail terms including community service for unlawful assembly, but Hong Kong’s Department of Justice applied for a review, seeking imprisonment.

Wong was jailed for six months, Chow for seven months and Law for eight months. Law had been the city’s youngest ever democratically elected legislator before he was stripped last month of his seat by a government-led lawsuit.

The three appeared stern but calm as their sentences were delivered by a panel of three judges. A lawyer involved in the case said they would appeal. Wong, who was 17 when he became the face of the student-led democracy movement, punched his fist in the air as he left the court room and shouted: “Hong Kong people don’t give up.”

Minutes earlier he Tweeted: “They can silence protests, remove us from the legislature and lock us up. But they will not win the hearts and minds of Hongkongers.” Chow waved at his parents as he left the court. His mother broke down in tears.

The three judges in Hong Kong’s second highest court, the court of appeal, wrote in their judgment that the three could not say they were sentenced for exercising freedom of assembly in a city where many democrats see a gradual erosion of freedoms promised in 1997.

“In recent years, there’s been an unhealthy trend in Hong Kong society. Some people use the pursuit of ideals … as an excuse to take illegal action,” Judge Wally Yeung wrote.

“This case is a prime example of the aforementioned unhealthy trend.”

The former British colony, which has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula since it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, was rocked by nearly three months of mostly peaceful street occupations in late 2014, demanding Beijing grant the city full democracy.

The so-called “Umbrella Movement” civil disobedience movement, which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters at its peak, was triggered by Wong and his colleagues storming into a courtyard fronting the city’s government headquarters.

They were later charged with participating in and inciting an unlawful assembly.

Just before sentencing, Wong told over a hundred supporters who thronged into the court lobby, some weeping, that he had no regrets.

“I hope Hong Kong people won’t give up,” he said. “Victory is ours. When we are released next year I hope we can see a Hong Kong that is full of hope. I want to see Hong Kong people not giving up. This is my last wish before I go to jail.”

About 100 supporters later swarmed the prison vans taking the three away from court, shouting slogans, a Reuters witness said. At least one person was taken away by police.

Wong told Reuters on Wednesday that Hong Kong’s democratic movement was facing its “darkest era” and that he’d lost confidence in the city’s independent legal system, long considered one of the best in Asia.

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A senior government source who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter said Hong Kong’s top prosecutors had initially “not recommended pursuing” the case further” after the non-jail terms were handed down.

But Hong Kong’s Secretary of Justice, Rimsky Yuen, overruled them and insisted on re-opening Wong’s case, a decision that ultimately led to their imprisonment, the source said.

In response to emailed questions from Reuters to Yuen seeking clarification, a spokesman for the Department of Justice said it “does not comment on internal discussions regarding individual cases”.

“However, the DoJ (Department of Justice) reiterates that all decisions were made in accordance with the Prosecution Code, the applicable law and relevant evidence.”

The DoJ said in an earlier statement there was “absolutely no basis to imply any political motive”.

Critics disagreed.

“From the initial choice to prosecute these young democrats through to today’s hearing, these cases have been shot through by politics, not law,” China director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, said in a statement.

“That Hong Kong’s courts increasingly appear to operate as mainland courts do is clear evidence that ‘one country, two systems’ is on the ropes – with ominous consequences for all,”

Amnesty International also slammed the jail terms.

“The relentless and vindictive pursuit of student leaders using vague charges smacks of political payback by the authorities,” said Mabel Au, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

Under the “two systems” formula, Hong Kong enjoys a free judiciary, unlike on the mainland where the Communist Party controls the courts which rarely challenge its decisions.

In recent months, dozens of protesters, mostly young people, have been jailed for their roles in various protests, including a violent demonstration that the government called a riot in early 2016. (Additional reporting by Tyrone Siu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie)

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