NEW YORK (February 13, 2018) — The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) welcomes the decision of Hong Kong’s highest court
to overturn the prison sentences of student protesters Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law, who led the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Last Tuesday, February 6, the Court of Final Appeal overturned the student protesters’ prison sentences, which were handed down in August 2017. Wong, Chow, and Law were arrested in 2014 on unlawful assembly charges for entering a fenced-off government area known as “Civic Square.” They were originally sentenced to community service or suspended sentence, but Hong Kong’s justice department sought heavier punishment in an appeal, resulting in the August 2017 sentencing of six- to eight-month prison terms. Last Tuesday’s decision overturned these prison sentences, freeing the students.
“Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law are courageous young activists who dared to speak up for democracy. They should not have been charged in the first place, but we welcome the decision to free Hong Kong’s first political prisoners,” said HRF President Thor Halvorssen. “Hong Kong citizens have the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly under ‘one country, two systems.’ The Hong Kong government must ensure that these freedoms are protected, not trampled.”
In recent years, the Hong Kong government has gradually undermined fundamental rights by jailing prodemocracy protesters, banning activists from standing for election, and disqualifying popularly elected lawmakers. The court’s decision ruled in favor of the three student leaders, but it also explained that the legal system will adopt tougher sentencing guidelines in the future, potentially resulting in harsher sentences for future protesters. The court stated it will adopt a more stringent view if offenders were to “cross the line of acceptability, including acts of incitement, particularly so if violence is involved.”
“The court’s statement on future sentencing is troubling. It suggests that future protesters might be prosecuted harshly regardless of whether the protest is violent. The hypothetical ‘line of acceptability’ is not a valid legal standard, and becomes a sword of Damocles over all prodemocracy activists in Hong Kong,” said Joy Park, HRF international legal associate. “On top of that, ‘incitement’ is an overbroad and vague criminal charge often used by authoritarian governments to jail nonviolent protesters and dissidents. According to international law, short of presenting imminent danger of violence, protesters should not be prosecuted under charges of incitement. If Hong Kong labels and prosecutes peaceful protest as ‘incitement,’ it would be violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which remained in force for Hong Kong after the transfer of sovereignty on July 1, 1997.”
In an effort to recognize Wong, Law, and Chow for their “peaceful and principled commitment to a free and prosperous Hong Kong,” last week, a dozen United States Congress members nominated the three students leaders, as well as the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.