Protesters march in Hong Kong on August 20, 2017, to protest the jailing of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow (not pictured), the leaders of Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Movement’, after their sentencing at the High Court on August 17. Wong, Law and Chow were handed sentences of six to eight months by the Court of Appeal for their role in 2014’s massive Umbrella Movement protests, which called for fully free leadership elections and were an unprecedented challenge to Beijing. (Isaac Lawrence / AFP)
HONG KONG (AFP) – Hong Kong’s leader Monday defended a court’s decision to jail three leading democracy activists including Joshua Wong after the move triggered international criticism and a major protest march.
Their imprisonment has been slammed by international rights groups and politicians and prompted accusations that the independence of Hong Kong’s courts has been compromised under pressure from Beijing.
Tens of thousands took to the streets of the semi-autonomous Chinese city Sunday to condemn the prison terms.
The three were originally given non-custodial sentences for their role in the initial protest that sparked the Umbrella Movement — months-long demonstrations and street blockades calling for democratic reforms.
But the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government appealed on the grounds that the penalties were not severe enough.
Last Thursday the Court of Appeal sentenced the three to between six and eight months in jail.
Speaking for the first time since Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were imprisoned, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said rights and freedoms in Hong Kong were protected by its mini-constitution.
— SCMP News (@SCMP_News) August 21, 2017
“But the exercise of these rights and freedoms, as pointed out by the court, is not without limit,” she told reporters.
“What we are dealing with are not political persecutions,” Lam added.
“They are unlawful acts or even acts involving violence.”
Allegations of political interference either in the decision to seek the sentence review or the court’s judgement were “totally unfounded”, she said.
The three stormed a fenced-off government forecourt, prompting an all-night stand-off with police.
Wally Yeung, one of the three judges who handed down the jail terms, said in a written judgement there had been an “unhealthy trend” of people in Hong Kong breaking the law for the sake of their ideals and having what he described as “arrogant and self-righteous ideas”.
The wide-ranging ruling was presented as a deterrent to protesters by the court.
The justice department said the judgement would be taken into consideration in future cases, prompting fears that more leading democracy activists with pending cases would be jailed.
Lam is hated by many young activists as she was deputy to unpopular former leader Leung Chun-ying. She promoted the Beijing-backed political reform package that sparked the Umbrella Movement by imposing restrictions on democratic reforms.
China on Friday rejected international criticism of the jailing of the trio, warning against using “so-called democracy” to conduct “illegal violent activities”.