Hong Kong appeal court frees three democracy leaders

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong poses outside the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong

Handing down the judgement in the Court of Final Appeal he also said had been "inappropriate" to hand the sentences down retrospectively.

Hong Kong's highest court has overturned the prison sentences of the leaders of the "Umbrella Movement" prodemocracy protests in 2014.

In a reversal of an August 2017 verdict, the five-member Court of Final Appeal said on Tuesday that the "sentences of imprisonment" against Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow are "quashed".

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.

But Hong Kong's Department of Justice appealed the decision, paving the way for an appeals court to order jail terms of six months for Wong, eight months for Law and seven months for Chow.

The highest court said the appeals court "erred in dispensing with the need to consider other sentencing options", in meting out punishment against the three.

They stressed, however, that Hong Kong was a law-abiding society and that "future offenders involved in large-scale unlawful assemblies involving violence" will be subject to stricter guidelines laid down by the Court of Appeal.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" agreement that ensured its freedoms, including a separate legal system.

But the trio warned it was not a time for celebration because the semi-autonomous Chinese city still faced threats to its freedoms. "It's a long term battle for us in the future", said Wong after the February 6 verdict.

"Maybe more and more activists will be locked up because of this harsh judgment ..."

The magistrate was plainly aware of the factor of deterrence, the large scale nature of the assembly, the risk of violent clashes, the Appellants' knowledge of the likelihood of clashes between the participants and the security guards and the police and the inevitability that at least some security guards would be injured, and the fact that there was a prior lawful assembly and that the protesters did not have an absolute right to enter the forecourt. "We must urge people to continue to fight for democracy". "In such a case involving violence, a deterrent sentence may be called for and will not be objectionable on the ground that it creates a "chilling effect" on the exercise of a constitutional right".

"All politically motivated prosecutions aimed at silencing those promoting democracy in Hong Kong must be dropped". "This is setting a precedent".

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