23 January 2019
Chief Executive Carrie Lam insists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow are not political prisoners but activists who broke the law. Photo: Reuters
Chief Executive Carrie Lam insists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow are not political prisoners but activists who broke the law. Photo: Reuters

Why the govt fears ‘political prisoners’ label on activists

After the Court of Appeal accepted the government’s application to punish 16 young activists with jail sentences for their participation in anti-government protests, several members of the opposition camp as well as some overseas media labelled them “political prisoners”.

The label particularly stuck to Joshua Wong and former lawmaker Nathan Law who were jailed due to their political stance.

However, the government, from Chief Executive Carrie Lam to justice chief Rimsky Yuen and leading figures in the legal sector, jumped to the court’s defense, saying the decision was nothing beyond the law, and urged the public to respect it.

Otherwise, they warned, Hong Kong’s judicial independence would be further eroded by such “unfounded” criticism.

Several foreign media outlets including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times published editorials expressing their concern over the judgment and the future of Hong Kong.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s Commissioner to the US, Clement Leung, wrote to the Journal that Wong, Law and fellow protest leader Alex Chow “were imprisoned by the Court of Appeal [not the government] after a fair, open and transparent judicial process. They were convicted and sentenced not because they exercised their right to demonstrate, but for their unlawful conduct during the protest. They are not ‘political prisoners’.”

Leung also said the claim that the prosecutions were politically motivated is completely groundless. Any suggestion that our judges were under political influence and were forced to “send democratic activists to jail” is an insult to our judiciary, which is internationally recognized for its independence, quality and professionalism, he said.

Leung’s response followed the government’s script and the pro-Beijing game plan to use “rule of law” to find student activists like Wong and Law guilty of disrupting social harmony by leading mass demonstrations.

Pan-democrats criticised the judiciary for following Beijing’s direction in suppressing opposition voices and also lambasted the government for concluding that the punishment had nothing to do with the activists’ political stance.

In response to accusations that the government is using the legal system to suppress opponents, Lam said on Saturday that Hong Kong will not become “authoritarian” because its judiciary is independent.

Hong Kong courts have enjoyed high recognition for their independence in the past decade and have been among the best in the world.

It’s no surprise that Lam is trumpeting such advantage to win the trust of foreign investors. But Lam, her administration and members of the pro-Beijing camp are avoiding the core issue of the judgment.

And that is the government made a political decision to seek a review of the punishment of the 16 activists despite opposition from several senior prosecutors.

That drew speculation that Yuen was the only one in favor of harsher punishment. As things stand, the activists are disqualified from running in an election for five years due to their criminal record. They are no doubt political prisoners.

Former executive councilor Anna Wu spoke the truth behind the government’s decision. She told a media interview on Monday that the cases involving the 16 activists are political issues rather the legal ones.

The government needs to settle the issue in a political manner but not to use legal action to stop the activists from voicing their concern over certain issues in Hong Kong.

Wu said the Secretary for Justice is a political appointment and his main responsibility is to provide legal advice to the authorities, so it is not appropriate for the official in this post to take up a frontline role in promoting government policies such as the political reform plan two years ago.

The case of Wong, Law and Chow was clearly triggered by the government’s political reform proposal. Given Yuen was a member of the “political reform group” at that time with Carrie Lam and Raymond Tam, the public would have an impression that Yuen was not independent enough to make the decision to charge the three student leaders, as it could involve conflict of interest.

To uphold the judicial independence of Hong Kong, Wu said the government should rely on external legal professionals to help decide some controversial cases to avoid political intervention.

But the fact is that Hong Kong is no longer a city under rule of law inherited from the UK. It is now a city under “rule by law” that uses the law books to limit people’s rights.

Against this backdrop, the government insists that the activists are not political prisoners but they breached the law during the protests.

While the authorities, including highly respected legal professionals, are comfortable with sending the young activists to jail, they are also losing credibility among the younger generation.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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