The treatment of the Falun Gong has been seen as a litmus test of Hong Kong's commitment to the rule of law since the group was banned by the mainland in 1999. So it was not surprising when the first convictions of group members here in 2002 placed our legal system in the international spotlight and prompted allegations that justice had not been done. Sixteen Falun Gong members, five of them from overseas, were fined for offences arising from a peaceful protest outside the central government's liaison office. The trial was tense and politically charged. And the magistrate's findings were unconvincing. Yesterday's ruling in the Court of Appeal shows that some of the criticisms were justified. To their credit, the appeal judges have stepped in to put this right. But they have gone further than that. The court underlined the importance that must be attached to the freedom to protest. It also made clear that this freedom is to be enjoyed equally by all - including the Falun Gong. This should be obvious. But it needed to be said. The ruling will go a long way towards easing the concerns that arose as a result of the trial. The judgment did not go entirely the way in which the Falun Gong members wanted. Convictions were quashed on two offences and upheld on two others. They may take the case to the Court of Final Appeal. But the findings made in their favour are important. The court cleared the protesters of causing an obstruction in a public place - outside the liaison office. It ruled that even if the demonstrators had caused an obstruction, they had a 'lawful excuse' to do so. The judges reached this decision in different ways. But they all agreed that the right to protest should not be curtailed lightly. This, they added, should be a key factor when balancing different interests and determining whether a demonstration is lawful. Mr Justice Frank Stock also found that protesters have a right to stage a meaningful demonstration - one which can take place in a location where its impact will be felt. This point should not be lost on the police, who often seek to move protesters away from spots that are deemed to be sensitive. As for the trial, the picture that the judges painted is not an attractive one. The magistrate, Symon Wong Yu-wing, was found to have wrongly rejected highly significant evidence put forward by the defence. He had prevented lawyers representing Falun Gong members from pursuing valid lines of inquiry when cross-examining witnesses. Mr Wong had also failed to attach sufficient importance to the fact that the protesters were exercising rights protected by the Basic Law. One judge even suggested the magistrate may have had a tendency not to view the evidence in an even light. This is a disturbing finding. Shortcomings of this kind would be a concern in any court case. But this was a particularly sensitive one - and the world was watching. There was a clear need for the highest standards to be observed. This trial took place in an unhealthy political climate. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had twice described the Falun Gong as an 'evil cult' the previous year. The security chief at that time, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, had been investigating anti-cult laws. And some local delegates to the National People's Congress had been pushing for action to be taken against the Falun Gong. It is not surprising that there were some who saw the prosecution of these protesters as being politically motivated. Thankfully, a calmer atmosphere now prevails. Mrs Ip wisely decided that Hong Kong did not need anti-cult laws. And Mr Tung has refrained from making further attacks on the Falun Gong. Yesterday's court ruling is in keeping with this trend. It will help enhance Hong Kong's reputation as a tolerant, diverse society that is committed to the rule of law.