On Tuesday, Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong became a free man again when the territory’s top court granted him bail pending a final appeal over charges related to his role in massive pro-democracy protests that later become known as the Umbrella Revolution.
Geoffrey Ma, the Chief Justice of Hong Kong who heads the territory’s Court of Final Appeal, heard the application. He ordered Wong to surrender his travel documents and to report to the police weekly.
Wong, in a prison crew cut and wearing a crumpled white shirt was all smiles when talking to his legal team. His father was at the hearing, as were dozens of supporters.
Since August, Wong has been serving a six-month sentence for charges related to unlawful assembly, and was found guilty earlier this month — on his 21st birthday — of additional charges in relation to the protests, which called for elections free from interference by the Chinese government in Beijing. Another imprisoned activist, Nathan Law — who for a time was Hong Kong’s youngest-ever lawmaker — was also released on bail.
The two will next appear in court at an appeal hearing on Nov. 7. Chief Justice Ma said he was “not prepared” to call the possibility of an appeal “entirely hopeless.
Speaking outside the court, Wong said: “I would like to [take] this chance to thank all of the Hong Kong people and people around the world [who] support the democracy movement in Hong Kong. Maybe Nathan and I will need to go to jail again, but while the government can lock up our bodies, but they can’t lock up our minds.”
Since 1997, Hong Kong, a former British territory, has been a semi-autonomous Special Administrative Region of China and promised significant autonomy under a principle known as “one country, two systems.”
What first landed Wong in prison
On the evening of Sept. 26, 2014, Wong, Law and fellow activist Alex Chow, along with several others, stormed a forecourt of the Hong Kong government’s headquarters. Thousands upon thousands of people took to the streets in the following days, which resulted in the 79-day Umbrella Revolution protests.
They were convicted of charges relating to the protests in 2016, and served non-custodial sentences. But a sentencing review, triggered by the government’s Department of Justice, led to an appeals court ruling in August that sent the trio to prison.
Wong’s second conviction, the sentence of which remains yet to be handed down, relates to the November 2014 clearance of a major protest site in the Kowloon peninsula. He is among a group of 20 accused of obstructing bailiffs trying to dismantle barricades following a court injunction against them.
What has happened since then
Wong, Law and Chow are far from the territory’s only dissidents before the courts. By one count, over 200 activists, scholars and politicians are facing trial or already imprisoned over charges stemming from their involvement either in the Umbrella Revolution, or in other similar protests.
Earlier this month, just days before Wong received his second conviction, British human rights activist Benedict Rogers, a vocal supporter of his and an advocate for political freedoms in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, was denied entry to the territory without explanation.
Meanwhile, China’s top legislature is expected shortly to extend a mainland Chinese law banning acts that desecrate the national anthem to Hong Kong, where sports fans routinely boo the Chinese national anthem. Democracy advocates are concerned the move could be used as a tool for political repression.
Why Joshua Wong’s case matters
Under the common law framework that Hong Kong inherits from Britain, the judiciary is meant to operate independent of the executive branch. As such, people with pro-democracy leanings had been pining their hopes on the judicial arm as a line of defense against what they see as Beijing’s increasing circumvention of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
China, though, has a different idea about how the Hong Kong government should work. In 2008, then Vice-President Xi Jinping called for the “mutual understanding and support” of the three branches of government — including the judiciary.
Increasingly in recent years, a series of court rulings unfavorable to protestors and democracy activists have engendered a sense that the courts might be bowing to political pressure. Tuesday’s ruling will offer some relief to those whose confidence in judicial independence has been shaken.
The judgement also carries particular weight and symbolism. It not only sets a precedent for lower courts, but also serves as an indicator of how Ma, as the head of Hong Kong’s judiciary, personally approaches cases where politics and Hong Kong-China relations are part of the conversation.
What people are saying
“Appreciating that the perception of justice relates both to what is done and what is seen to be done, the public would likely be relieved by such release pending appeal,” said Michael Davis , a visiting professor of law at Hong Kong University, in an email to TIME before bail was announced. “While the bail decision may not tell us much about such continuing independence, people will certainly be watching going forward to judge whether the CFA vigorously adheres to the traditions and spirit of the common law and does not appear to buckle to political pressure.”
Regardless of Wong’s bail application, the litany of new charges against activists on the pro-democratic side of Hong Kong’s political divide has struck some as a crackdown on opposition.
“I find the spate of litigation deeply troubling,” Alvin Cheung, a researcher with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University, told TIME earlier this month, claiming the Department of Justice was “exercising its prosecutorial discretion to serve partisan political ends.”
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