Court ruling gives Hong Kong activists jail time reprieve

Hong Kong (dpa) - Hong Kong activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow have a temporary reprieve from prison after the High Court of Appeal on Tuesday approved their application to appeal a criminal conviction.

"No one knows" if the Court of Final Appeal will uphold the verdict in January, when the three can make their appeal, meaning they might be sent back to prison, Wong told dpa after the decision.

"However it is still good news," he said.

The three were sentenced to six to eight months in prison in August after an appeal court controversially overturned a previous and more lenient conviction for unlawful assembly in 2016.

They have been out on bail since late October.

On Tuesday, the court said the group may proceed with their appeal and set the trial date for January, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.

The August sentence - based on the role of the three as leaders in Hong Kong's massive 2014 "Umbrella Revolution" democracy protests - was widely condemned by human rights groups, who saw it as an attack on freedom of expression in Hong Kong and an attempt to appease Beijing.

The protests brought the three activists, then in their teens and early 20s, into the global spotlight, with their call for a more democratic election of the Hong Kong chief executive, the city's highest ranking leader.

In the years since, Hong Kong courts have begun prosecuting protest participants. As recently as October, courts found 20 protesters guilty of contempt of court for failing to leave a protest site after an injunction.

Chow expressed his sympathy for other jailed activists on Tuesday after the court ruling. "We are not alone on this path," the Hong Kong Free Press quoted him as saying.

"We should adjust our feelings in prison ... so that we are not beaten by the regime, and that the prison sentence will become a learning experience for us, so that we can be better after we are out of prison," he said.

The prosecution of Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists has also raised concerns about the future of freedom of speech and political assembly in the former British colony.

Since 1997, Hong Kong has been a special administrative region of China and enjoys more rights and freedoms than the rest of the country. Some in Hong Kong, however, say its privileges have gradually eroded in recent years following the conviction of activists and the kidnapping of dissident booksellers. 

On Monday, UN experts David Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Michel Forst, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, called for the courts to release the group.

"We urge the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal to consider the cases of Wong, Law and Chow in accordance with Hong Kong's obligations under international human rights law," they said in a statement.

"We fear that if their sentences are upheld, this will have the effect of stifling the expression of dissenting opinions, the right to protest and the overall work of human rights defenders."

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