TAIPEI • Taiwan's high court yesterday upheld the acquittal of anti-China activists who occupied the island's Parliament in 2014, with the judge describing the protests as "an expression of democracy".
Jubilant activists praised the decision which they said was a defence of democratic freedoms at a time when Beijing is ramping up pressure on the self-ruling island.
China sees Taiwan as part of its territory and is pushing for reunification, with Beijing signalling a harder line towards what it regards as a renegade province.
Thousands took to the streets in protest in March 2014 in what became known as the Sunflower Movement, with 200 people occupying the main chamber of parliament for three weeks.
The rallies were sparked by a proposed cross-strait trade pact critics said had been made in secret and would leave export-reliant Taiwan vulnerable to Chinese influence.
"The defendants did not initiate attacks or cause bloody conflicts and it was an expression of democracy," judge Chang Huei-li told the court as she upheld last year's acquittal by a lower court.
She said protesters were reacting to flaws in the legislative process and the failure of lawmakers to reflect public opinion.
"Those who have power should listen to people's voices and promote their welfare," she said.
Taipei's district court had ruled the protesters' actions reflected their right to civil disobedience, clearing them of incitement and interfering with public functions.
But state prosecutors appealed against the decision, arguing a lack of legal precedent and consensus for using civil disobedience as a justification for breaking the law.
Protest leader Huang Kuo-chang, now a lawmaker, said yesterday's judgment reaffirmed Taiwan's freedoms.
"When lawmakers do not carry out their duties properly the people can stand up and resist," Mr Huang said after the ruling.
Sunflower leader Chen Wei-ting said Taiwan's transparent legal process was a message to China's President Xi Jinping, who was granted a mandate to extend his rule indefinitely on Sunday.
"I want to tell Xi Jinping that even if you can become an 'emperor' and have endless terms, Taiwan is a democratic country," said Mr Chen.
He contrasted freedoms in Taiwan with semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where activists have been jailed and political freedoms are increasingly under threat.
"I hope our friends in Hong Kong who are in a difficult situation will not give up. Taiwan will always stand with you," Mr Chen said after the hearing.