HONG KONGHONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong appeals court jailed three leaders of the Chinese-ruled city's democracy movement for six to eight months on Thursday, dealing a blow to the youth-led push for universal suffrage and prompting accusations of political interference.
Joshua Wong, 20, Alex Chow, 26, and Nathan Law, 24, were sentenced last year to non-jail terms including community service for unlawful assembly, but the Department of Justice in the former British colony applied for a review, seeking imprisonment.
Wong was jailed for six months, Chow for seven months and Law for eight months. Law had been the city's youngest ever democratically elected legislator before he was stripped last month of his seat by a government-led lawsuit.
The three appeared stern but calm as their sentences were delivered by a panel of three judges. A lawyer involved in the case, Jonathan Man, said they would appeal.
The jail terms disqualify them from running for the financial hub's legislature for the next five years.
The bespectacled Wong, who was 17 when he became the face of the student-led democracy movement, punched his fist in the air as he left the court room and shouted: "Hong Kong people don't give up."
Minutes earlier he Tweeted: "They can silence protests, remove us from the legislature and lock us up. But they will not win the hearts and minds of Hongkongers."
Chow waved at his parents as he left the court. His mother broke down in tears.
About 100 supporters later swarmed the prison vans taking the three away from court, shouting "shame on political prosecution" and waving yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the city's pro-democracy movement, a Reuters witness said. At least one person was taken away by police.
The three judges in Hong Kong's second highest court, the court of appeal, wrote in their judgment that the three could not say they were jailed for exercising freedom of assembly in a city where many democrats see a gradual erosion of freedoms promised in 1997 when Britain handed the territory back to China.
"In recent years, there's been an unhealthy trend in Hong Kong society. Some people use the pursuit of ideals ... as an excuse to take illegal action," Judge Wally Yeung wrote.
"This case is a prime example of the aforementioned unhealthy trend."
RUBIO SLAMS "SHAMEFUL" JAIL TERMS
Hong Kong, which has been governed under a "one country, two systems" formula since 1997, allowing freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, was rocked by nearly three months of mostly peaceful street occupations in late 2014, demanding Beijing grant the city full democracy.
The so-called Umbrella Movement, which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters at its peak, was triggered by Wong and his colleagues climbing into a courtyard fronting the city's government headquarters.
They were later charged with participating in and inciting an unlawful assembly.
Under the "two systems" formula, Hong Kong enjoys a free judiciary, unlike on the mainland where the Communist Party controls the courts which rarely challenge its decisions.
U.S. Senator and one-time presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, who heads the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said in a statement the "shameful" resentencing showed that "Hong Kong's cherished autonomy is precipitously eroding".
"Beijing’s heavy hand is on display for all to see as they attempt to crush the next generation of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and undermine the 'one country, two systems' arrangement," Rubio said.
"Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Alex Chow, and other Umbrella Movement protesters are pro-democracy champions worthy of admiration, not criminals deserving jail time."
International human rights organizations also slammed the jail terms.
"From the initial choice to prosecute these young democrats through to today's hearing, these cases have been shot through by politics, not law," China director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, said in a statement.
"That Hong Kong's courts increasingly appear to operate as mainland courts do is clear evidence that 'one country, two systems' is on the ropes - with ominous consequences for all."
Amnesty International added its voice.
"The relentless and vindictive pursuit of student leaders using vague charges smacks of political payback by the authorities," said Mabel Au, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.
Britain said it was vital Hong Kong's young people had a voice in politics and it hoped the sentencing would not discourage legitimate protest in future.
"The UK remains a staunch supporter of the right to peaceful protest and we believe it is vital that Hong Kong's young people have a voice in politics. Hong Kong's way of life is underpinned by its rule of law," a spokeswoman for Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement.
The Hong Kong Department of Justice said in a statement it respected the court's decision.
A senior government source who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter said Hong Kong's top prosecutors had initially "not recommended pursuing" the case further after the non-jail terms were handed down.
But Hong Kong's Secretary of Justice, Rimsky Yuen, overruled them and insisted on re-opening Wong's case, a decision that ultimately led to their imprisonment, the source said.
In response to emailed questions from Reuters to Yuen seeking clarification, a spokesman for the Department of Justice said it "does not comment on internal discussions regarding individual cases".
"However, the DoJ (Department of Justice) reiterates that all decisions were made in accordance with the Prosecution Code, the applicable law and relevant evidence."
The DoJ said in an earlier statement there was "absolutely no basis to imply any political motive".
In recent months, dozens of protesters, mostly young people, have been jailed for their roles in various protests, including a violent demonstration that the government called a riot in early 2016.
Wong told Reuters on Wednesday that Hong Kong's democratic movement was facing its "darkest era" and that he'd lost confidence in the city's independent legal system, long considered one of the best in Asia.
Just before sentencing, Wong told over a hundred supporters who thronged into the court lobby, some weeping, that he had no regrets.
"I hope Hong Kong people won't give up," he said. "Victory is ours. When we are released next year I hope we can see a Hong Kong that is full of hope. I want to see Hong Kong people not giving up. This is my last wish before I go to jail."
(Additional reporting by Tyrone Siu in Hong Kong and Kylie MacLellan in London; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie)