17 February 2019
Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow (left to right) have completed community service but their sentence could be changed by the Court of Appeal. Photo: AP
Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow (left to right) have completed community service but their sentence could be changed by the Court of Appeal. Photo: AP

HK court takes stiffer approach towards young activists

It was a sad day again for Hong Kong’s young activists on Tuesday as the Court of Appeal increased the punishment for 13 activists, who stormed the Legislative Council complex in June 2014, to jail terms of up to 13 months following a successful appeal by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The DOJ sought the heavier punishment for unlawful assembly relating to a protest against the government’s plan for the development of Northeast New Territories.

Arguing that the protest nearly turned into a riot, the DOJ sought to put the activists behind bars, and the court agreed that deterrent sentences were needed after hearing how the group had attempted to storm the Legco building using objects to try to force the doors open.

Tuesday’s judgment is no doubt a victory for the government and the pro-Beijing camp. Both sides believe that young activists are destroying social harmony by opposing all proposals from the government. That can explain why the DOJ filed an appeal to send the 13 activists to jail as a form of warning.

In fact, the courts have been tougher on social activists in recent years. They have showed no tolerance for people who challenge the public order. For example, in the case of the February 2016 MongKok riot, five young people were sentenced to three-year jail terms this year, with the court saying deterrent sentences were necessary to send a message to the public. The judge said the court cannot condone such violent behavior.

Outside court, disqualified lawmaker Nathan Law was seen crying after a meeting with supporters. He told a press conference after the court judgment that the legal action would damage the dream of the young generation to achieve change by way of mass action. He said all of them are good people and that they just wanted to show their concern for Hong Kong, and they did not deserve such a serious punishment.

On Thursday, the Court of Appeal will hand down its decision for a sentence review filed by the DOJ for activists Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Law. The trio were earlier found guilty over the Civic Square clash that sparked the 2014 pro-democracy protests. They were sentenced to community service and have completed the order.

It seems that the DOJ is relying on the Court of Appeal to overturn the judgment of the Court of First Instance, which showed leniency and sympathy to the young activists.

The judge initially agreed that the activists were only expressing their concern for Hong Kong and had no intention to disrupt social order. The DOJ argued that the defendants were dangerous and could incite rioting and urged the court to implement a harsher punishment to send a warning to others. The Court of Appeal accepted the DOJ argument

During a 2008 visit to Hong Kong, Chinese President Xi Jinping said there should be mutual understanding and support among the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The Court of Appeal judge accepted the DOJ’s plea for a heavier punishment to give the public the impression that Xi’s remarks nine years ago were being proved correct. Still, the public should ask whether the defendants got a fair hearing.

The Hong Kong government once again stands on the opposite side of the next generation. While the initial ruling of community service is sufficient, the Court of Appeal can threaten all young activists not to join any mass action with the prospect of a criminal record and a jail term.

This is something young people cannot afford. Their criminal records will curtail any chance of studying abroad and render them ineligible to take part in elections.

Such a scenario will force future social activists to stay away from protests and turn them into armchair warriors while Hong Kong turns in the direction they fear.

Most Hong Kong people believe that the courts have defended their independence despite increasing pressure from the government, but the fact is that they have taken a more severe approach towards social activists. They are becoming a tool to suppress dissent.

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EJ Insight writer

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