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 five 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 in the former British colony.
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 judges 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. "Even a low degree of violence" requires an immediate prison sentence, he said.
He added, though, that it would be inappropriate to retroactively apply harsher penalties to the three, who initially were 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, already had served about two months of their sentences before they were bailed out for their appeal.
The 2014 protests, which saw activists block major thoroughfares for 11 weeks, fizzled out but spawned a youth-led opposition movement that gained political traction while facing increasing resistance from Hong Kong's Beijing-backed government.
Law was elected to the semi-democratic legislature in 2016 but was one of six pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified after a government legal challenge. Wong had plans to run for office but was forced to put them on hold to fight the prison sentence, which barred him from standing for office for five years.
Another member of their Demosisto political party, 21-year-old Agnes Chow, was blocked last month from a March election by officials who said their party's political platform advocating self-determination or independence for Hong Kong violated the city's constitution.
Wong still may end up behind bars. He also is 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. Officials in Beijing and Hong Kong decried it as foreign meddling.