24 January 2019
Tens of thousands took part in a rally in Hong Kong on Sunday to show support for opposition activists and student leaders who were jailed in relation to 2014 civic and pro-democracy protests. Photo: Reuters
Tens of thousands took part in a rally in Hong Kong on Sunday to show support for opposition activists and student leaders who were jailed in relation to 2014 civic and pro-democracy protests. Photo: Reuters

Can we still count on a fair and independent judiciary?

The Court of Appeal’s decisions last week to hand out jail terms to young activists and student leaders over 2014 civic and pro-democracy protests have caused widespread dismay in Hong Kong.

The rulings, which came after the Justice Department argued that original sentences for community service had been too lenient on the activists, were a letdown for many people who hoped the court will throw out the government’s appeal.

The jailing of the activists, even after some of them completed community service as per the original order, prompted concerns as to whether justice was really served in this case.

Questions are being raised as to whether political factors came into play in handing out “deterrent” punishment to the activists, who were accused of breaking the law during anti-government protests.

The rulings have sparked debate on a vital issue: can Hong Kong people still count on the local judiciary to ignore political considerations and ensure justice for all?

Can we expect the court system to remain totally independent from the government in the face of various pressures?

While the executive, legislature and judiciary are in theory separate, will the lines blur given Beijing’s stated principle of an ‘executive-led’ administration?

These are some of the questions that are crossing people’s minds following last week’s jail terms for the young activists, in line with the government’s bidding.       

The court decisions, no doubt, come as a wake-up call for Hong Kong people that they cannot take their rights, including the freedom to demonstrate, for granted.

There is also a worry about differential treatment and harsher punishments for radical opposition activists.

The 16 activists in the dock last week received serious jail terms for unlawful assembly and other offenses, but some pro-government protesters were handed relatively light punishments in the past.

Given the growing concerns about political persecution of opposition activists, it is no surprise that tens of thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets on Sunday to voice support for Occupy Movement leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow and other jailed activists.

With Wong and his comrades seen as “prisoners of conscience”, the rally sent a clear message that Hong Kong people will continue to stand up against what they perceive as injustice.

Hong Kong’s judiciary has won wide respect over the years for its independence, carrying on a legacy from British colonial rule with its established systems and procedures.

But now, with the jailing of youth activists, questions are being raised as to how really independent the judicial system is from the government.

The rulings last week will prompt worries that Beijing’s call for stronger cooperation between the executive, legislature and judiciary branches is finding some takers.

The jail terms, which in effect meant double punishment for some activists as they had already done community service in line with the earlier court ruling, can hardly be deemed as fair and just.

While Hong Kong people still hold the judiciary in high regard, the rulings last week have raised doubts as to whether the court had maintained its independence or just followed the government’s stance.

Some critics, meanwhile, wondered why the judges made the verdict sound like a political document and painted the youth activists as radicalists.

Hong Kong people still believe that the judiciary upholds the city’s core values and safeguards the rights of locals.

Yet, concerns are growing about the handling of legal cases related to social protests, with the courts accused of coming down too harshly on radical activists at the behest of the government.  

On Monday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam rebuffed allegations that the government had pursued reviews of the activists’ original punishments due to political reasons. 

She also dismissed suggestions that the judges were acting on the government’s orders, describing such talk as “irresponsible”.

Meanwhile, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung also defended the local courts, stressing that the judiciary remains fiercely independent. 

Many legal professionals and pro-Beijing groups too stood up in defense of the rulings and warned the public not to criticize the judge, the verdicts or the judicial system.

The pleas are understandable and entirely in order as it is not fair to attribute political motives to judges. 

Still, will that stop people from wondering if Hong Kong has moved from “rule of law” to “rule by law”?

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EJ Insight writer

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