Why were 13 Hong Kong protesters jailed, and what does this mean for future demonstrations?

Ruling reflects city’s judges approach towards cases involving rallies that ‘turn rowdy’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2017, 11:29am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2017, 11:29am

Thirteen Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters convicted of unlawful assembly were jailed for between eight and 13 months by an appeal court on Tuesday after prosecutors pushed for tougher sentences. The demonstrators had originally been spared imprisonment by a lower court judge, who ruled that they had fought for a “noble cause” when they took part in a protest against a controversial government development plan in 2014. How did a community service order turn into more than a year of jail time for most of these young activists?

How did the 13 end up having a brush with the law?

The 13 were among a bigger group of about 200 who stormed the city’s parliament, the Legislative Council, in Admiralty on June 13, 2014, during what was the sixth in a series of protests against the Hong Kong government’s new town development plan in the northeastern New Territories. The legislature’s financial committee was debating the preliminary funding, totalling HK$340 million, for the project.

Protesters and villagers – some of whom would lose their homes if the plan went ahead – sat peacefully outside the building. But the mood changed later that night when the then-chairman of the financial committee, Ng Leung-sing, abruptly ended pan-democratic lawmakers’ effort to filibuster and allowed the funding to be voted on and passed.

Protesters who stormed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council given jail terms after prosecutors pushed for tougher sentences

Angry protesters then tried to storm into the legislature in an attempt, they said, to start a dialogue with the lawmakers. They used bamboo sticks and metal objects to pry open the front gate, while police officers fended them off with pepper spray and shields. A security guard was injured and a side door damaged, to the tune of HK$200,000.

The 13 activists were subsequently arrested and faced a range of charges including unlawful assembly, forcible entry and obstruction of Legco officers. But villager Au Hei-man said in a press conference after the 13 were jailed on Tuesday: “They were only using their bodies to stop the violence of the bureaucracy.”

Why the controversy over the new town development plan?

Villagers and protesters say the plan would result in people being forced out of their homes. The development involves building new towns in Kwu Tung North and Fanling North, the northeastern side of the New Territories, with the earliest study conducted in 1998. A finalised version was introduced in 2013, which projected 60,700 flats being built for a population of 174,900. The government said the new towns were meant to increase the supply of housing, but protesters accused the authority of colluding with the private sector and letting developers build luxury private residences.

Who are the 13 protesters?

The most familiar face in the group is Raphael Wong Ho-ming, vice-chairman of the League of Social Democrats, who is active in protests against social injustice. Ivan Lam Long-ying, a former member of student activist group Scholarism, is known for his role in leading a student movement against the implementation of national education in schools in 2012. He is now a member of Demosisto, a political group co-founded by his peers Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Nathan Law Kwun-chung. The others are from a tertiary student group or those protesters who turned up individually. One of them, Chow Koot-yin, is a villager.

What happened before the magistrate during their trial?

All 13 either admitted to or were convicted after trial of the charges faced. In sentencing them in 2016, Eastern Court Magistrate Jason Wan Siu-ming took an apparently sympathetic approach and said they had been protesting for a “noble cause”. “It could be noble not only because people act for themselves, but they speak up for those that are ignored,” he told them. He then ordered each of them to perform 80 to 150 hours of community service.

What happened this week?

The prosecutors were unhappy with the penalty and returned to the Court of Appeal on Monday to argue that the offence was too serious for a community service order. They said the 13 demonstrators had teamed up with others and used violence during the protests. The three justices at the appeal court agreed and sentenced the 13 to eight to 13 months in jail instead.

What are the implications?

This is the city prosecutors’ second attempt in the past week to beef up sentences for activists involved in protests that, they said, turned rowdy. Last week, they asked the court to jail three key student activists from the 2014 Occupy protests, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang, for storming the government headquarters. The trio will learn their fate on Thursday in a judgment expected to contain legal principles by the three same presiding judges on sentencing protesters in violent demonstrations.