By Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The former leader of the Hong Kong University student union on Thursday received a court sentence of community service for his role in a campus protest, escaping the fate of a growing list of young activists put behind bars.
The activists, many still university students, have been at the forefront of the former British colony's fight for democracy which peaked during the months-long "Umbrella Movement" street occupations in late 2014.
But after failing to convince Beijing to allow full democracy in Hong Kong, many lost confidence in the city's "one country, two systems" arrangement, and began to call for total independence.
Billy Fung, 23, who helped lead a protest last year by about 200 students seeking talks over the governance structure of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), was given 240 hours of community service for disorderly conduct in a public place, criminal damage and attempted forcible entry.
"I understand you have ideals and hope to change what is unjust in society," said magistrate Ko Wai-hung.
"But when you think these ideals are the absolute truth, you may neglect that other people have the right and reasons to hold different opinions."
Wearing ties with the university emblem, both Fung and another student leader, Colman Li, 22, who is to serve 200 hours of community service, looked calm when the sentences were handed down, while about 100 young people in the courtroom applauded.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, with the promise of a large degree of autonomy and civil liberties not permitted in mainland China.
In the past few years, police have charged up to 100 activists, most of them young, over anti-government protests, a list compiled by activist groups shows.
Fung's sentence came one month after the jailing of youth activist Joshua Wong, who had helped lead tens of thousands onto Hong Kong's streets.
The issue of academic freedom has flared in recent weeks, after a campus display of pro-independence banners drew the ire of Chinese state media and Hong Kong officials, triggering heated standoffs between local freedom advocates and pro-China students and groups.
In Fung's case, the governance issue drew scrutiny after the university council blocked a prominent HKU law school dean and human rights advocate, Johannes Chan, from taking the post of pro-vice-chancellor.
(This story has been refiled to insert dropped word "sentence" in headline)
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by James Pomfret and Clarence Fernandez)