Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were jailed in August last year for their leading role in the so-called Umbrella Movement in 2014 when thousands of protesters demonstrated against what they perceived as Beijing’s increasing meddling in Hong Kong’s politics.
A lower court had given Wong and Law community service orders and Chow a suspended sentence.
But after the government's intervention they were jailed for between six and eight months by the Court of Appeal. The Court of Final Appeal has now overturned that verdict.
“This is a narrow, technical victory only,” says Law Yuk-kai, the director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.
“The Court of Appeal this time has held that actually the court is correct in their directive regarding the original sentencing.”
This directive advises courts to hand out harsh sentences if violence takes place during demonstrations, even if they started out as expressions of “civil disobedience.”
But Wong, Law and Chow got off the hook, because the court ruled that they took part in a demonstration that allegedly involved violence before the directive was issued.
“So technically it should not be applicable to their case, so they should not be sentenced according to that directive which makes the actual sentence much heavier,” says Law.
With its decision, the Hong Kong court has been navigating around sensitivities and seemed to have found a solution where nobody would lose face.“The Court I think has been quite skillful,” says Law.
“They have upheld the ruling related to the use of violence in demonstration, which can be punished by heavy sentences, but at the same time, they don’t want to be associated with sentencing the peaceful leaders of a peaceful demonstration.
“So in a way it is not antagonistic to Beijing, and at the same time they have also let go these students and will not be blamed by the international community for sending these students of the peaceful umbrella movement to prison.
But Hong Kong activists agree that the sentence doesn’t change much for their liberty to organize demonstrations.
“The the pressure from Beijing and the local government is getting harder and harder,” says Victor Wong, one of the participant in the Umbrella 2014 movement.
“More and more leaders are being send to jail nowadays. Today is just a special case. To organize a movement will be very difficult now. “I think it must affect the student movement and the movement in general in Hong Kong,” he says.
Authorities in Mainland China itself won’t be very happy either with this action of Hong Kong’s court of final appeal, and chances are now big that Beijing will increase attempts to interfere in the work of Hong Kong’s judiciary, and undercut its cherished independence.