The Hong Kong Department of Justice failed in its bid Wednesday to have tougher sentences imposed on the youngest legislator in territory’s history, and two democracy activists, over their involvement in street protests two years ago.
The public gallery applauded as Nathan Law, who was elected to the territory’s legislature earlier this month at the age of 23, was told that his original 120-hour community service would stand.
The 80-hour community service sentence on Joshua Wong — age 19 and a co-founder with Law of the political party Demosistō, which advocates self-determination for the semiautonomous Chinese territory of 7.2 million — was also upheld, along with a three-week suspended prison sentence for student leader Alex Chow, 25.
Prosecutors argued that the trio’s decision to storm a public plaza outside Hong Kong’s legislative headquarters, together with around 100 other demonstrators on Sept. 26, 2014, was a premeditated show of force, and cited injuries received by several security guards in scuffles on that night. A prosecution attempt to bring up precedents related to the sentencing of triad gang members brought guffaws of laughter from the courtroom.
Lawyers for the defense argued that Law, Wong and Chow were willing to bear responsibility and apologized to anybody injured during the storming of the square.
In delivering her ruling, magistrate June Cheung said that the department had failed to provide sufficient evidence for the necessity of a tougher sentence and added that noncustodial sentences were not unprecedented in such cases. The Department of Justice was ordered to pay costs.
Law was convicted in July of inciting unlawful assembly for his role in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution that saw key districts of Hong Kong occupied for nearly 80 days by protesters seeking greater political freedom. Wong and Chow were convicted of the lesser charge of participating in an unlawful assembly.
The sentences have been viewed as lenient by establishment figures in Hong Kong. The pro-Beijing legislator Junius Ho, who is a former president of the Hong Kong Law Society, described the penalties as “grossly inadequate” in an open letter to the territory’s Secretary for Justice.
Speaking outside the court, Chow accused the government of attempting to “settle political bills” with dissidents.
Wong said that the ruling “proves that Hong Kong still has approximation of rule of law and judicial independence. In the future, we’ll still commit to the democracy movement to fight for freedom and human rights, and in the future civil disobedience will still be the way for us to fight for the future of Hong Kong.”
Veteran pro-democracy legislator Leung Kwok-hung, who was present outside the courthouse, accused the government of abusing its power in seeking a review of the sentence. “It’s a matter for the magistrate to decide whether the punishment is appropriate or not,” he told TIME.
— With reporting by Rishi Iyengar and Kevin Lui / Hong Kong