HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong's leading democracy activists appealed on Tuesday (Jan 16) against their jail terms in a case seen as a litmus test for the independence of the city's judiciary, which some fear is under pressure from Beijing.
Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were jailed in August last year for their role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement mass pro-democracy protests, after Hong Kong's government pushed for harsher sentences.
A lower court had given Wong and Law community service orders and Chow a suspended sentence. But after the government's intervention they were jailed for between six and eight months by the Court of Appeal.
All three activists were later bailed pending their appeal.
The government's move was seen as further evidence of Beijing's growing influence over the semi-autonomous city, with Chinese authorities particularly riled by the emergence of activists calling for independence for Hong Kong.
Wong and Law's political party Demosisto wants self-determination for the city.
"Now is the chance for us to be aware how the courts of Hong Kong will recognise, will position, the motivation of civil disobedience," Wong, 21, told reporters ahead of the hearing at the city's court of final appeal.
The unlawful assembly charges for which the three were jailed related to their involvement in the storming of a fenced-off government forecourt known as Civic Square in September 2014.
Their arrests sparked wider rallies which exploded two days later when police fired tear gas at the crowds, triggering the Umbrella Movement protests which brought parts of the city to a standstill.
Defence lawyer Robert Pang warned that harsher sentences had a "chilling effect" on young people expressing their views.
"We must guard against discouraging young, idealistic persons who are doing this not for their personal benefit...from expressing their point of view," Pang told the court.
Prosecution counsel David Leung argued the role of the court of appeal had been to judge whether the original magistrate had given "proper weight" when assessing the culpability of the trio for the clashes.
Court of final appeal judge, chief justice Geoffrey Ma, warned protesters should not "overstep the mark", whatever their motivation.
But he questioned whether the original magistrate had "erred in principle" as non-custodial sentences were common for unlawful assembly offences.
The case was adjourned for judgement with a date not set.
The Umbrella Movement called for fully free leadership elections to replace a system where the city's chief executive is selected by a pro-Beijing committee, but failed to win any concessions.
Since then there have been growing signs that China is increasing its control over Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has been governed under a "one country, two systems" deal since 1997, when Britain handed the territory back to China.
The deal allows citizens rights unseen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and a partially directly elected parliament, as well as an independent judiciary.
A number of leading campaigners have been charged in relation to the 2014 protests, while six rebel legislators including Law were disqualified from parliament.
Wong also faces a possible jail sentence on Wednesday for obstructing the clearance of a major protest encampment in 2014, a charge to which he pleaded guilty.