BEIJING/HONG KONG (AFP, REUTERS) - China on Friday (Aug 18) rejected international criticism of the jailing of three prominent Hong Kong activists, warning against using "so-called democracy" to conduct "illegal violent activities".
An appeals court on Thursday jailed three leaders of the Chinese-ruled city's democracy movement - Joshua Wong, 20, Alex Chow, 27, and Nathan Law, 24 - for six to eight months, dealing a blow to the youth-led push for universal suffrage. Several protests by their supporters are planned in the coming days.
They had been convicted of unlawful assembly related to months of mostly peaceful street protests that gripped the city in 2014 but failed to sway Communist Party rulers in Beijing in their call for full democracy.
The trio had already been sentenced last year by a district court in the former British colony to non-jail terms including community service, but the Department of Justice applied for a review, seeking jail terms.
Supporters and rights group said the ruling by the Court of Appeal was more proof that Beijing is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city and that rule of law is being compromised.
"Hong Kong people are fully entitled to rights and freedoms. But no one can use the excuse of so-called democracy and freedom to conduct illegal violent activities," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
"I want to reiterate that Hong Kong is a special administration of China... China is firmly opposed to any external forces interfering in Hong Kong affairs," Hua said at a regular press briefing.
The sentencing has stoked broader international fears for Hong Kong's constitutionally enshrined freedoms, part of the "one country, two systems" deal under which the British returned the territory to China in 1997, as well as perceptions of political meddling.
"We are concerned by the decision of the Hong Kong authorities to seek a tougher sentence," said Ms Kristin Haworth, a spokesman for the US Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau.
"We hope Hong Kong's law enforcement continues to reflect Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and remains apolitical."
US House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called the re-sentencing of the trio unjust, while Britain said it was vital that Hong Kong's young people had a voice in politics and it hoped the sentencing would not discourage legitimate protest in future.
Earlier on Friday Hong Kong's legal chief denied any "political motive" in seeking jail for the three young pro-democracy activists.
He was responding to a Reuters report that he had overruled other legal officials who had initially advised against pursuing the case.
Reuters reported that Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen had ignored the advice of several senior prosecutors in the Department of Justice in pushing for jail terms.
Mr Yuen said differences of opinion could be constructive.
"I believe everyone will understand that any entity, including a government department, in discussing something, will sometimes have a consensus, and sometimes there are different opinions," he told reporters.
"I hope everyone can understand that the main point is not whether there was any difference in opinion, and actually sometimes having a difference in opinion is a good thing, because if everyone has the same opinion then you can't have a constructive discussion."
Mr Yuen added that there "hasn't been any political motive at all"in the case.
China's conservative state-run tabloid, the Global Times, had welcomed the jail terms, saying "the law has shown its authority".
The paper wrote: "This sentence will be a milestone in Hong Kong's governance. From now on people who protest violently can be given a guilty sentence following this precedent, and they will need to go to jail."
The jail terms disqualify Wong, Chow and Law from running for the financial hub's legislature for the next five years. Law had been the city's youngest ever democratically elected legislator before he was stripped last month of his seat by a government-led lawsuit. The three plan to appeal.