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The Hong Kong authorities’ prosecution of three pro-democracy student leaders sends a chilling warning for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the city, Amnesty International said today, after Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law were found guilty for their roles in events that triggered 2014’s Umbrella Movement.

The city’s Eastern Magistrates’ Court found Joshua Wong and Alex Chow guilty of “taking part in an unlawful assembly.” Joshua Wong was acquitted on a second charge of “inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly,”  but Nathan Law was found guilty on the same charge. Sentencing was adjourned until August 15. 

“The prosecution of student leaders on vague charges smacks of political payback by the authorities,” said Mabel Au, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

“The continued persecution of prominent figures of the Umbrella Movement is a blow to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Hong Kong.”

The convictions relate to a specific incident on September 26, 2014 at the beginning of the student-led pro-democracy protest outside government headquarters in Hong Kong. On that day several students climbed into the fenced-off forecourt, commonly known as Civic Square. The square had been a popular site for previous peaceful protests on other occasions, before the authorities restricted access to it in the summer of 2014.   

The police’s handling of this initial protest and the arrests of the student leaders at that time was a crucial factor in tens of thousands of pro-democracy supporters taking to the streets in the days immediately afterwards.

The vague provisions of Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, on which this prosecution was based, have been repeatedly criticized by the UN Human Rights Committee for failing to fully meet international human rights law and standards on the right of peaceful assembly.

“The authorities must stop using vague laws in an attempt to intimidate people from exercising their right to peaceful assembly,” said Au.

“Prosecutions aimed at shutting down participation in peaceful protests must be dropped.”

According to the police, 955 individuals were arrested for various alleged offenses during the Umbrella Movement protests which took place from September to December 2014. Another 48 individuals were arrested after the protests, including for “unlawful assembly.” According to the Hong Kong government as of January 31, 2016, 216 people have been prosecuted, or continue to face charges for their alleged involvement in the protests.