HONG KONG • Three leaders of Hong Kong's "Umbrella Revolution" yesterday avoided jail over 2014 pro-democracy protests as a court said political tension would not sway its judgment, in a city divided by Beijing's tightening grip.
The young campaigners - Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow - were charged over a protest in September 2014 which saw students climb over a fence into Hong Kong's government complex, known as Civic Square.
They were calling for fully free leadership elections for the semi-autonomous city and their arrests at the time sparked wider rallies.
Those rallies exploded two days later when police fired tear gas on the crowds, triggering mass demonstrations for full democracy that brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill for more than two months, presenting Communist Party rulers in Beijing with one of their biggest political challenges in decades.
The umbrellas that protesters used to defend themselves from pepper spray and tear gas gave the movement its name.
Yesterday, magistrate June Cheung said it would be unfair if she were influenced by the current political atmosphere into handing down a "deterrent sentence".
"The court believes the case is different from an ordinary criminal case. I accept they were genuinely expressing their views," she said in sentencing the men at the Eastern Magistrates' Court.
Justice Cheung added the three had no prior convictions, were concerned about social issues and passionate about politics.
Mr Wong, 19, and Mr Chow, 25, had been charged with taking part in an unlawful assembly, while Mr Law, 23, was charged with inciting others to take part.
Mr Wong, who has gained international fame for leading the movement despite his youth, was given 80 hours of community service. Mr Chow was given a three-week prison sentence but granted a reprieve for graduate studies in the United Kingdom. Mr Law was given 120 hours of community service.
The defendants, who could have been jailed for up to two years, praised the magistrate for her leniency.
"The court has taken the view that the Umbrella Movement and entering Civic Square was not for personal gain but public good," Mr Wong said.
However, Human Rights Watch yesterday slammed the authorities for pursuing the case, saying it was a "violation of their rights to peaceful expression and assembly".
Tensions have remained high since the rallies ended without concessions from Beijing on political reform, splitting society into those who want to fight for greater autonomy and those who think there is little to gain.
Mr Wong and Mr Law have recently set up a new political party, Demosisto, campaigning for self-determination for Hong Kong. Mr Law will run for a legislative seat in next month's elections.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS