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Upon the Secretary for Justice’s applications, the Court of Appeal this week reviewed the sentences for thirteen participants in the anti-northeast New Territories development protests and three prominent student leaders—Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow—involved in the re-taking of the Civic Square. The Court of Appeal overruled the original sentences in both cases and imposed eight to thirteen months of imprisonment on the thirteen protesters and six to eight months of imprisonment on the three student leaders. The Progressive Lawyers Group (“PLG”) is deeply aggrieved by these judgments.
The PLG believes that the defendants involved had acted not for their self-interests but the betterment of the society. They spoke up for the oppressed and fought for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Their motivations are noble and their actions are no less laudable than those championed by history’s great civil rights leaders.
By imposing much heavier penalties on these defendants, the review cases aim at deterring similar incidents from happening again. However, harsh sentences do much more than punishing the offenders; they also silence dissent and discourage civil society, especially the younger generations, from engaging in political discourse.
The PLG does not believe that political issues should or can be addressed by the courts. Chronic social problems and the frustrations and resentment they engender underscore the lack of accountability of an unelected government. As Mr. Justice Kemal Bokhary, a non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal, said in 2016, “A judiciary can remain independent even in the absence of democracy, but that doesn’t mean to say that the judiciary would be effective in preserving the Hong Kong lifestyle in the absence of democracy.”
The PLG calls on those in power to recognise the socio-political issues underlying the crimes committed by the protesters and work to resolve these issues by engaging civil society and restarting the dialogue on universal suffrage. Any further attempt to seek intervention of the courts will only call into question Hong Kong’s judicial independence and impartiality of the courts—a bedrock for the city’s prosperity.