Pro-democracy leaders Nathan Law (C), Joshua Wong (R), and Alex Chow meet journalists outside a court in Hong Kong, on September 21, 2016.

© 2016 Bobby Yip/Reuters

(New York, August 16, 2017) – The Hong Kong government should quash the 2016 convictions of three student leaders for their roles in a peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 17, 2017, the Court of Appeal of the High Court of Hong Kong is due to rule on the Hong Kong Department of Justice’s request that Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong be given prison sentences.

Under Hong Kong ordinances, anyone sentenced to more than three months in prison is barred from running for the Legislative Council and for the District Council for five years.

“Hong Kong authorities should never have prosecuted these three student leaders for peaceful protests in the first place,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The justice department’s outlandish application seeking jail time is not about public order but is instead a craven political move to keep the trio out of the Legislative Council, as well as deter future protests.”

On July 21, 2016, a Hong Kong court convicted Chow and Wong of unlawful assembly, and Law of incitement, offenses under the Public Order Ordinance. Chow was given a three-week sentence with a one-year suspension. Wong and Law were given community service orders of 80 hours and 120 hours, respectively, and have since fulfilled their obligations.

The justice department’s outlandish application seeking jail time is not about public order but is instead a craven political move to keep the trio out of the Legislative Council, as well as deter future protests.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

In October, the Hong Kong Department of Justice filed an application for a review of the sentences, an uncommon step, and now seeks prison terms for the three. The prosecutors claim that “the nature of the crime in this case is extremely serious,” and that “as the accused do not feel true remorse, awarding a sentence of community service is wrong on principle and clearly not enough.”

In an unrelated but similar case, the appeals court imposed a heavier penalty on 13 defendants who had been convicted of unlawful assembly for another anti-government protest in 2014. The 13, who had previously been sentenced to community service, were given prison terms between 8 and 13 months after the justice department sought a review of their sentences.

The charges against the three student leaders stem from their leadership of a peaceful sit-in that triggered the 79-day pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. At that time, Hong Kong authorities characterized the demonstrations as illegal, invoking the Public Order Ordinance, which has been criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee for possibly “facilitat[ing] excessive restrictions” to basic rights. The law, which requires that processions involving more than 30 people and assemblies with more than 50 must apply for and receive a “letter of no objection” from the government in advance, is incompatible with article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies to Hong Kong.

Human Rights Watch has long urged Hong Kong authorities to revise the ordinance to comply with the ICCPR.

Imposing new punishments on Wong and Law, who had already completed their sentences of community service, may violate article 14(7) of the ICCPR, which enunciates the principle of “double jeopardy” that no one shall be “punished again” for the same offense.

In November 2016 and July 2017, Hong Kong courts disqualified a total of six elected pro-democratic legislators. The court decisions were based on a November 2016 judicial interpretation issued by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, changing Hong Kong’s functional constitution during legal proceedings. As a result, pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature lost their limited power to reject motions and bill amendments raised by other legislators. The Hong Kong government is expected to organize a by-election for the six vacated seats. At least two of the three student leaders had expressed interest in running for these seats.

Human Rights Watch has documented the surge in politically motivated prosecutions against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders since the Umbrella Movement protests culminated in December 2014. Most were charged with participating in or leading peaceful protests. Human Rights Watch has also documented other forms of official harassment against opposition politicians, such as delays and rejections in registering political parties on political grounds. There were also increased reports of suspected mainland security police following, intimidating, and assaulting democracy advocates, particularly during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong from June 29 to July 1, 2017.

“People are increasingly losing confidence in the neutrality of Hong Kong’s justice system,” Richardson said. “Hong Kong authorities should quash the convictions of peaceful protesters that have raised serious concerns about the long-term prospect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong.”