HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong's highest court on Tuesday overturned prison sentences for three young pro-democracy activists convicted for their roles in kicking off 2014's "Umbrella Movement" protests in the semiautonomous Chinese city.
A panel of judges sided with Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow in their appeal against monthslong prison terms for unlawful assembly.
The case sparked controversy because a magistrate initially gave the three lenient sentences but the justice secretary requested a review that resulted in prison time ranging from six to eight months, raising worries about judicial independence and rule of law.
The Court of Final Appeal's ruling was an unexpected victory for the city's youthful opposition movement after recent setbacks. But the activists said they feared it would have a chilling effect on future protests because the five judges on the panel also said they endorsed the lower court's view that a new, tougher sentencing approach was needed for unlawful assemblies.
"Hong Kong is on the whole a peaceful society and elements of disorder and violence must be deterred," Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma said.
He added that it would be inappropriate to apply harsher penalties to the three, who were initially given community service or suspended sentences according to sentencing guidelines at the time.
"Maybe more and more activists will be locked up because of this harsh judgment," Wong, 21, told reporters on the courthouse steps after the decision. "We just urge people to continue to fight for democracy. At the same time it's not the time for any congratulations or celebrations."
The three were convicted on unlawful assembly charges for their part in storming a courtyard at government headquarters in September 2014 to protest Beijing's plan to restrict elections, kicking off Hong Kong's most turbulent period in decades and putting Wong, then still a teen, in the global spotlight.
Wong, Law, 24, and Chow, 27, had already served about two months of their sentences before they were bailed for their appeal.
The 2014 protests spawned a youthful opposition movement that gained political traction but also faced resistance from Hong Kong's Beijing-backed government.
Law was elected to the semi-democratic legislature in 2016 but was disqualified after a government legal challenge. Wong also had plans to run for office but the prison sentence had barred him from office for five years.
Another member of their Demosisto political party, 21-year-old Agnes Chow, was blocked from an upcoming election by officials who said their party's political platform advocating self-determination or independence for Hong Kong violated the city's constitution.
Wong may still end up behind bars. He is also appealing a three-month prison sentence for a separate contempt case related to the 2014 protests.
Last week a dozen U.S. lawmakers nominated Wong, Law, and Chow along with Hong Kong's entire pro-democracy movement for the Nobel Peace Prize, in an effort to recognize what they said were peaceful efforts to bring political reform to Hong Kong and uphold its rule of law and human rights.