Three leaders of 2014's Occupy Central movement escaped jail time Monday, with the court saying it would not base sentencing on the heated “political atmosphere” in the city.
There is a lot of tension as fears of China closing its grip on semi-autonomous Hong Kong grows. And observers had said a harsh sentence on the three popular young campaigners could lead to a backlash.
Their conviction last month in the highest profile court case to emerge from the pro-democracy movement was slammed by rights group Amnesty International. The group described it as an intimidation tactic and a “chilling warning” to the city’s activists.
However, magistrate June Cheung said the three defendants - Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow - had no previous criminal records, were concerned about social issues and passionate about politics.
“They turned it into action,” she said. “The court believes the case is different from an ordinary criminal case. I accept they were genuinely expressing their views.”
Cheung added it would be “unfair to the defendants if a deterrent sentence is imposed based on the political atmosphere”.
Wong, 19, and Law, 23, were given community service over the protest (80 hours and 120 hours respectively) which saw students climb over a fence into forecourt of Civic Square. Chow, 25, was given a suspended three-week sentence.
All three were facing possible two-year jail sentences when they appeared at district court on Monday morning.
Their arrests for their actions at Civic Square sparked wider rallies that erupted two days later when police fired tear gas on the growing crowds, which led to Occupy Central.
Despite the huge turnout for the movement, Beijing refused to grant any concessions.
Wong and Chow had been charged with taking part in an unlawful assembly for the Civic Square demonstration, while Law was charged with inciting others to take part.
Wong has always said the various protest-related charges against him and others are political persecution.
Since the failure of the mass rallies to win reform, a growing number of young activists have begun calling for Hong Kong to break entirely from Beijing.
Wong and Law, a candidate for the city’s upcoming legislative council elections, recently founded a new political party, Demosisto, campaigning for self-determination for the city. Law, now no longer facing jail time, is clear to run for next month’s Legislative Council elections