Hong Kong democracy activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow are free to go after their Umbrella Movement jail sentence appeals were heard at the Court of Final Appeal on Tuesday.

In 2016, the trio were found guilty of unlawful assembly offences by the Magistrates Court over their involvement in the Civic Square clashes in 2014, which triggered the 79-day Occupy occupation.

Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law.
Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Law and Wong were initially given a community service sentence – which they served – whilst Chow received a three-week suspended jail sentence.

However, the Department of Justice won a sentence review pushing for harsher punishment. The Court of Appeal last August sentenced the three activists to six to eight months in jail. Law and Wong were released on bail in October 2017, and Chow a month later pending the appeal at the top court.

Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law
Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In allowing the appeal, the Court of Final Appeal’s judges said that it was unable to agree with the Court of Appeal’s view that the magistrate imposing the original sentence erred in principle. The top court also said that the magistrate’s sentences were not “manifestly inadequate.”

However, the judgment said the Court of Appeal was entitled to give sentence guidelines for future cases involving violence at large-scale unlawful assemblies.

“In short, it was appropriate for the Court of Appeal to say that, in the circumstances now prevailing in Hong Kong including increasing incidents of unrest and a rising number of large scale public protests, it is now necessary to emphasise deterrence and punishment in large scale unlawful assembly cases involving violence.”

But the Court of Final Appeal on Wednesday considered it inappropriate to apply the lower court’s guidance to Wong, Law and Chow, as doing so would retrospectively impose significantly more severe sentences on them based on the new sentencing guideline.

Nathan Law
Nathan Law. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“Offenders in such future cases will then be subject to the new guidelines,” the judgment said.

Justice ‘not achieved’

Reacting to the judgment outside the courthouse, the activists said they did not think justice had been achieved with the verdict.

Wong said the decision was “a harsh judgment wrapped in sugar coating.”

Alex Chow.
Alex Chow. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“I would not say this is a win, and there is no reason for us to celebrate,” he said. “What we are up against is the court taking a very narrow definition of non-violent civil disobedience actions.”

“The road ahead is still very difficult.”

Law criticised the court for upholding the lower court’s view of the Civic Square protests as violent and its decision that the new sentencing guidelines created by the Court of Appeal will be used in future cases.

“If Civic Square happened today, we would still be sentenced to six to eight months,” he said. “Even though we are able to walk out of court today, I do not see that justice has been realised.”

Court of Final Appeal.
Court of Final Appeal. File photo: In-Media.

Alex Chow said the most important question was why the protests in 2014 occurred.

“It was because of two years of fake consultation over political reform and the August 31 decision of the National People’s Congress,” he said, referring to the NPC’s decision that Beijing must vet chief executive candidates.

“In the face of structural violence, most Hong Kong people resisted with utmost peace… who are the truly violent people? I believe you know the answer yourselves.”

Joshua Wong
Joshua Wong. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In another Umbrella Movement-related court case, Wong is currently on bail after being sentenced to three months behind bars for contempt of court over his failure to comply with an injunction to clear the protest site in Mong Kok.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.