Hong Kong democracy protesters freed

Hong Kong court frees 'umbrella movement' leaders

The judgement in the Court of Final Appeal backed the decision of the magistrate who originally handed down non-custodial sentences, saying she had not "erred in principle" by taking into account factors including the defendants' idealism, their youth and the fact that they had not offended before.

The three Hong Kong democracy activists convicted previous year on charges of unlawful assembly and incitement, for their part in sparking 2014's Occupy protests in the city, won their appeal against prison terms on Tuesday.

In what was seen as a highly controversial decision, the Department of Justice retried the case a year ago, seeking harsher penalties; Wong, Law, and Chow were sentenced to six- to eight- month prison terms. The three activists had been charged with "unlawful assembly" after they and others stormed into a fenced-off area in front of government headquarters in September 2014.

The government's move to seek jail sentences for the activists was seen as further evidence of Beijing's growing influence over the city, with Chinese authorities particularly riled by the emergence of activists calling for independence for Hong Kong.

Amnesty International's Hong Kong director, Mabel Au, said in a statement that the court had: "corrected an injustice" but added that "all politically motivated prosecutions aimed at silencing those promoting democracy in Hong Kong must be dropped".

The Court of Final Appeal's ruling was an unexpected victory for the city's youthful opposition movement after recent setbacks.




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

All three activists were later bailed pending their appeal.

"Even if it allows us to walk free out of court and prison, it still fully endorsed strict guidelines on civil disobedience in the future", he tells TIME. "We just urge people to continue to fight for democracy".

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.

A bi-partisan group of United States politicians including Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Chris Smith nominated "the entire pro-democracy movement" in Hong Kong for the coveted award.

In 2016, Wong, Law and Chow were sentenced to non-jail terms, including community service for "unlawful assembly". The ruling "set a unsafe precedent for sending people to prison for protesting in the future", says Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

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