Joshua Wong and other jailed Hong Kong student leaders see political careers halted
Three student leaders of Occupy Movement handed prison terms of six to eight months for storming government headquarters compound in 2014, with judge decrying incitement to break law to pursue ideals
Three prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy student leaders were jailed for six to eight months on Thursday for storming the government headquarters compound at Tamar during an illegal protest that triggered the 79-day Occupy sit-ins of 2014.
The ruling against Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang effectively halted their budding political careers, as they were slapped with a five-year ban from public office because of their criminal records.
In a victory for the government which had sought stiffer sentences for the trio, Demosisto leaders Wong and Law, after completing their community service sentences meted out earlier, were jailed for six and eight months respectively, while former student union leader Chow had his initial suspended three-week jail sentence replaced by a seven-month custodial term.
The prison sentences disqualify all three from running for a Legislative Council seat for five years. Wong had previously challenged the government to lower the minimum age requirement so he could run for Legco, and Law was stripped of his seat last month after he took his council oath improperly.
All three indicated they would take their case to the Court of Final Appeal.
In a strongly worded, 64-page ruling, the three Court of Appeal judges took turns to rebuke unlawful acts committed in the name of exercising freedoms.
Vice-president Wally Yeung Chun-kuen noted an unhealthy trend in Hong Kong society, with some members of the public, including educated people, recklessly breaking the law in the name of pursuing their ideals and exercising freedoms and encouraging others to follow suit while refusing to admit it was wrong to break the law.
“Our society will descend into chaos,” he wrote. “If such a situation is not effectively curbed, all talk of freedom and the rule of law will be empty.”
The court also cited the need to lay down new sentencing guidelines in cases involving violent unlawful assembly to bind the lower courts, which Mr Justice Poon Shiu-chor said had sent confusing messages to the public with inconsistent rulings.
When handling their case last August, trial magistrate June Cheung Tin-ngan had said it was atypical, in that it called for a more lenient and understanding attitude, since the three were young pro-democracy student leaders who expressed demands based on genuinely held political ideals.
But Poon noted that while community service might help rehabilitate young offenders, the court was inclined to impose immediate custodial sentences for more serious offences, such as in this case – unless there were very special circumstances, which were rare.
He said the trial magistrate had made fundamental errors in focusing too much on personal factors and motives behind the offence, as well as neglecting the fact that the case involved a large-scale unlawful assembly with a high risk of violence.
The court previously heard Wong and Chow had climbed into the government compound, while Law incited others to follow suit.
Wong, 20, and Chow, 27, were later found guilty of unlawful assembly. Law, 24, was convicted of inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly.
The three judges said their crime was a serious one that called for a deterrent sentence to prevent a repeat and to set an example for the public.
The three youths appeared calm in the dock as they were sentenced. As they were taken away by correctional services officers, Wong raised a fist in the air and chanted: “Hongkongers, do not give up.”
Chow, still wearing a student union T-shirt, smiled and waved at his parents in the public gallery. His mother initially kept a composed face but she later burst into tears, while his father revealed the family had just celebrated Chow’s 27th birthday, which he will mark today in a prison cell.
“I don’t want to comment on whether the court is right or wrong,” he said. “But as parents, we are very proud, we absolutely support them and we do not regret supporting them. What they did was to improve Hong Kong.”
Supporters waiting outside the court chanted “civil disobedience”, while others called out “shame on the judges”.
The Department of Justice said in a statement that it had noticed some members of the public were complaining that the case amounted to political persecution.
“Such accusations are groundless, they overlook the objective evidence available in the present case,” the statement said. “Hong Kong’s judicial independence cannot be questioned.”
A prison source said Wong would be kept at the Pik Uk maximum security institution near Sai Kung, while Chow and Law would spend the first night at the Lai Chi Kok reception centre.
Speaking outside the court ahead of the ruling, Wong said he wanted to see a “hopeful Hong Kong” when he was released next year, while Law declared he had no regrets about his activism.
The harsher sentences for the trio mark the government’s second successful application this week to review community service orders for political activists.
The same panel of three Court of Appeal judges found such orders inadequate for 13 activists convicted over a separate protest against government development plans. The protesters in that case were subsequently jailed for up to 13 months on Tuesday.
Last year, the Department of Justice lodged 16 such sentencing reviews at the magistrates’ level and another five in the Court of Appeal.
WHAT THE JUDGES SAID
Vice-president Wally Yeung Chun-kuen:
“To disrupt public order and public peace in the name of free exercise of powers will cause our society to descend into chaos. It will bring negative impact to societal improvement and development, and prevent others from exercising their powers and freedoms. If such a situation is not effectively curbed, all talk of freedom and the rule of law will be empty.”
Mr Justice Poon Shiu-chor:
“The respondents cannot say that they were convicted and sentenced for exercising their rights to freedoms of assembly, protest and speech. They are convicted and sentenced because they overstepped the boundaries of the law, and used seriously unlawful methods to gain forcible entry or incite other people including youngsters and students ... to a place which they had no right by law to enter.”
Mr Justice Derek Pang Wai-cheong:
“To treat long-standing and effective laws as unreasonable restrictions obstructing the freedom of expression, and to feel good about it after breaking the law as one wishes – such conduct does not allow the court for any reason to handle it with excessive leniency. People who hold such views not only break the law in conduct, but despise and transcend the law in spirit.”