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Hong Kong democracy activists walk free in appeal victory

Hong Kong democracy activists walk free in appeal victory

Pro-democracy activists (left to right) Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law pose outside the Court of Final Appeal before a verdict on their appeal in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

In a unanimous decision, a panel of five judges cleared Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow.

The Court of Final Appeal's ruling was an unexpected victory for the city's youthful opposition movement after recent setbacks.

Invalidating the sentences of imprisonment imposed by the Court of Appeal and reinstating those imposed by the magistrate, the court warned [press summary] that there is a new appellate guidance now in place from the Court of Appeal: "future offenders involved in large scale unlawful assemblies involving violence will be subject to the new guidelines rightly laid down by the Court of Appeal".

Nor is Tuesday's win the end for Wong.

He told reporters that pro-democracy protesters never had any intention "of physically harming anyone and insisted on non-violence". Over time, people will accept and normalise lower thresholds.

Last summer, Law and Wong were initially given 120-hour and 80-hour community service orders, respectively, while Chow was handed a three-week jail sentence along with a one-year probation.

The original prison sentences disqualified the three leaders from running in Hong Kong's Legislative Council.

But the jailing of democracy activists, the disqualification of opposition lawmakers from the legislature at Beijing's request and the lack of answers over the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers who resurfaced in the mainland have fuelled concern.

Wong, 21, who became the face of the Umbrella Movement, could soon return to prison for another protest-related offence, for which he is now on bail pending appeal.

The government's move to seek jail sentences for the activists was seen as further evidence of Beijing's growing influence over the city, with Chinese authorities particularly riled by the emergence of activists calling for independence for Hong Kong. The charges against the three related to the storming of a government complex.

The name of the movement arose from the use of umbrellas as a tool for peaceful resistance to the Hong Kong police during the protests.

That sparked the wider Umbrella Movement rallies which brought parts of the city to a standstill.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee of wide-ranging freedoms, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech, but critics accuse Beijing of creeping interference in the city's affairs and the government of toeing the Beijing line.

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