The Court of Final Appeal has quashed the prison terms given to Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow over the storming of Civic Square in 2014. But at the same time, it has warned that protesters who resort to any degree of violence are likely to face stiffer punishments in the future.
Wong, Law and Chow were jailed by the lower appeal court for between six and eight months last August after the government challenged the non-custodial punishments they were originally given for unlawful assembly offences.
The top court noted that in jailing the three pro-democracy activists, the appeal court had laid down a new set of sentencing guidelines, emphasising the need for deterrence when it comes to large scale unlawful assembly involving violence, “given the circumstances now prevailing in Hong Kong.”
But despite announcing that the trio are now to be set free, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma made it clear that the top court fully endorses the view that disorder or any degree of violence are serious aggravating factors calling for stricter sentences. Even if the amount of violence used is low, as in this case, it won't be condoned, he said.
But the five-judge panel said it's inappropriate to apply this new sentencing guideline – which is more severe than the previous sentence range – retroactively.
In its judgement, the Court of Final Appeal said the original non-custodial punishments handed down by the trial magistrate were not “manifestly inadequate”, because there were no guidelines at the time pointing to prison sentences for this type of case.
But it said stiffer punishments can be expected for any future offenders.
The judgement also made it clear that civil disobedience is not a mitigating factor if defendants "cross the line of acceptability", particularly by using violence.
The judges also noted that it's not their job to get involved in any political debate, but solely to apply the relevant legal principles.