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Accusations of political motivation in activist jailings ‘totally unfounded’, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam says

Lam’s comments came a day after a claimed 22,000 demonstrators took to the streets in protest at the jail sentences

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 August, 2017, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 August, 2017, 10:01am

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has rejected as “unfounded” and “irresponsible” accusations from critics at home and abroad that the recent jailings of 16 young pro-democracy activists were politically motivated, as she mounted a stout defence of the judiciary.

Addressing what she described as “groundless attacks” against the institution, the chief executive warned of a possible adverse impact on the judiciary. The consequences, she said could damage Hong Kong, as the foundations of the city’s success lay in having an independent judiciary and upholding the rule of law.

And to critics who said the jailings would only worsen the deficit of trust between disenchanted youth and the government, Lam said she remained determined to involve young people in the policymaking of her government.

Lam’s rebuttal came after police estimated 22,000 demonstrators took to the streets on Sunday in protest against what they claimed was “political persecution” in the jailing of Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang for six to eight months over their part in clashes at the government headquarters in Admiralty. The melee was a prelude to the pro-democracy Occupy protests of 2014, of which they became key leaders.

In another case last week, 13 activists were also given jail terms of up to 13 months.

Key points from Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s defence of decision to jail young activists

“I express extreme regret that some people have made groundless attacks against the court, or the entire judiciary, or the judges of the Court of Appeal. They do not only hurt the individual judges, but also affect the judicial independence and the rule of law that we treasure the most. Any allegations that the court had been interfered ... these are irresponsible comments,” Lam said in a press briefing hastily convened on the eve of her two-day trip to Shanghai and Hangzhou.

“I feel duty-bound as the chief executive to make it very clear that there’s absolutely no political interference, in the prosecution, in the review of sentence and in the judgements handed down by the Court of Appeal.”

Her comments came as the Department of Justice issued a statement rejecting speculation about “political prosecutions”.

Earlier, reports had suggested Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung overruled his top prosecutors and sought stiffer sentences on the trio who had done their community service order or had suspended jail terms.

The department said in ­reviewing the sentences, as in all cases, the Court of Appeal weighed the community service hours the defendants had served and made discounts to the jail time.

It also rejected claims of a vendetta, emphasising the defendants had yet to start their community service when the applications for review were made.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying also urged people to respect the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary.

“Hong Kong residents enjoy the rights and freedoms in accordance with the law. But these [jailed activists] have stepped across the boundary of law ... [we should not apply] double standards when it comes to different people or places.”

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Lam, admitted the public lacked trust in the government in recent years. She said she was not involved in Yuen’s decision – made during the last term of government – citing the Article 63 of Basic Law. The section states the department “shall control criminal prosecutions, free from any interference”.

Asked if she agreed with Yuen, whom she had picked as Justice Secretary for her government, she said there were differences in opinions in every “healthy and well-governed” organisation but she came to his defence.

His decision to apply for sentence reviews was based on legal grounds and “it should not be criticised arbitrarily”, she said.

Asked what she would have to say to the mothers of the trio, Lam said: “We are talking about illegal acts here, and it is the department of justice’s responsibility to prosecute according to its guidelines and laws. They were convicted in an open trial. They had the right to appeal, but I understand that they gave up that right … It means they accepted [the fact] that they committed a crime.”

“I am speaking here to the three mothers, as a mother myself: of course I can understand your emotions, but I also remember what I said on October 21, 2014, when I had an open dialogue with students … including Chow and Law,” she recalled.

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“I told them: however noble your ideals maybe, you need to fight for it in by legal and reasonable means, and I urged them to express their views in a lawful, peaceful and rational way that does not affect other residents.”

A spokesman for the organisers of Sunday’s march, Agnes Chow Ting, remained unconvinced. “The government did not seek stiffer sentences against those anti-Occupy protesters. But it chose to chase after the pro-democracy activists,” she said.

Alex Chow’s father said in an interview with government-station RTHK on Monday that he agreed with Lam’s remarks about the importance of safeguarding the rule of law.

But he said it was meaningless for Lam to say she had warned the student leaders in their talk over political reforms in October 2014 because the protest outside the government headquarters led by the trio “did take place before the talk”. The protest was in September 2014.

He said he respected Lam but hoped she would not try to make use of mother’s love to make political gains. “If she wants to express care … why did she not express it to the trio’s mothers [earlier]? It is not fair to the trio’s mothers.”

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

Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung, from the Chinese University, also said he did not think Lam’s statement would help cool the row. He said: “Basically she was just repeating the government position. I don’t see how helpful it is to convince the critics that there was no political consideration involved. Although she or her government did not actually launch those sentence review cases, but the public impression is that she is still responsible because she has kept Rimsky Yuen as her justice minister.”

New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who also sits on Lam’s cabinet, said the current administration should “draw a line under these unfortunate events of the past” and not pursue further prosecution and disqualification of other legislators to avoid further polarisation.

“I believe Lam has the good wills to mend the rifts in the society. I hope she will lead our society in increasing our patience and compassion, understanding different viewpoints and values, narrowing the differences but not intensifying the contradictions in the future,” she said.

Ip also hoped youngsters would draw a lesson from the court cases and adopt legal means to express their views in the future. But she dismissed critics that department of justice lodged the sentences reviews out of political decisions, saying she believed that decision was made merely with legal grounds with goals of making a deterrent effect in the society.