HONG KONG — Three leaders of protests that filled Hong Kong streets for weeks had their prison sentences thrown out by Hong Kong’s highest court on Tuesday, in a case that has drawn international scrutiny over accusations that the government was carrying out prosecutions to punish political opponents.
Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law had been sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to eight months for their roles in the 2014 protests, known as the Umbrella Movement.
Their imprisonment last year had led some pro-democracy politicians to call them “political prisoners,” an accusation the Hong Kong government rejected.
Mr. Wong and Mr. Law had originally been sentenced to community service, while Mr. Chow had been given a suspended jail term. But prosecutors appealed for tougher punishments, and the Court of Appeal handed down jail terms last year. While the three were released on bail as they appealed those jail terms, the sentences prevented them from pursuing political office for five years.
Their jailing spurred international criticism and protests in Hong Kong. Some critics said the ruling threatened the reputation of Hong Kong’s legal system and was a sign that its courts were under growing pressure from mainland China.
“The Court of Final Appeal has today corrected an injustice,” Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said in a statement. “The government’s vengeful pursuit of harsher sentences led to the trio being jailed and it is right this has now been overturned.”
The ruling meant the three protest leaders walked free on Tuesday. But the court affirmed tougher sentencing guidelines that would lead to imprisonment in the future for similar offenses.
Courts will take a stricter view if offenders “cross the line of acceptability, including acts of incitement, particularly so if violence is involved,” said Geoffrey Ma, chief justice of the Court of Final Appeal.
The Hong Kong Department of Justice said it welcomed the message that future violations may receive prison terms, and that little weight would be given to whether such acts were committed “in the exercise of constitutional rights or acts of civil disobedience.”
There was little celebration from the protest leaders.
“Our hearts are heavy,” Mr. Law said. “We walk free but Hong Kong’s democracy has lost a battle.”
Mr. Wong said he would “not describe today as a victory,” saying Hong Kong faces “rule by law instead of rule of law.”
“In the future, according to the handed-down judgment from the Court of Final Appeal, we may see more and more people locked up,” he said.
Last week, 12 members of the United States Congress nominated Mr. Wong, Mr. Chow and Mr. Law, along with the rest of the Umbrella Movement, for the Nobel Peace Prize, calling the case against the three “trumped-up.” Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials accused the American politicians of interfering in domestic Chinese affairs.
Hong Kong lawyers and legal scholars have defended the courts. Last month, Chief Justice Ma warned against “a tendency to associate what may be the desired result in court proceedings with the integrity of the court system itself or with the integrity of the judge or judges involved.”
Mr. Wong and Mr. Chow were found guilty in 2016 of unlawful assembly, while Mr. Law was found guilty of inciting people to take part in the assembly. The charges stemmed from the storming of a fenced government square in 2014; that protest, and the police response, set off the Umbrella Movement demonstrations.
For months, thousands of protesters held sit-ins on major roadways to call for open elections for Hong Kong’s top official. The government refused to back down, and the protests ended after 79 days. The movement had no concrete victories but helped launch the political careers of several young pro-democracy activists.
But in recent months Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp has sustained several blows.
Hong Kong courts have removed six lawmakers who altered their oaths of office to protest the influence of China’s central government over the semiautonomous city. Mr. Law, who became Hong Kong’s youngest-ever legislator after he was elected in 2016, was among those who lost their seats. The disqualifications killed the pro-democracy lawmakers’ veto powers in the legislative council.
Last month, Mr. Wong was sentenced to three months’ prison time in another Umbrella Movement case for failing to leave a protest area as ordered by a court. He was granted bail in that case as well as he pursues an appeal.
In recent days, Agnes Chow, a prominent member of the political party co-founded by Mr. Wong, Demosisto, and two other candidates have been disqualified from running to fill vacant legislative seats. They were disqualified because of previous statements on Hong Kong’s status and whether it should pursue greater autonomy or even independence. Ms. Chow’s party has called for a referendum on the long-term future of the territory.
While the quashing of the three protest leaders’ prison sentences means they could potentially run for office, other obstacles remain. Mr. Wong and Mr. Law, as members of Demosisto, would likely face disqualification.
“The government is kicking the young generation out of office,” Mr. Wong said.
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