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Hong Kong Democracy Activists Win Last Chance to Appeal Jail Terms in Highest Court

Pro-democracy activists take part in a protest on China's National Day in Hong Kong, China, Oct. 1, 2017.
Pro-democracy activists take part in a protest on China's National Day in Hong Kong, China, Oct. 1, 2017.

An appeal against the controversial jailing of three young democracy activists will be heard in Hong Kong's highest court in January, after the Court of Final Appeal decided on Tuesday to allow it.

Hong Kong's appeals court jailed Joshua Wong, 21, Alex Chow, 27, and Nathan Law, 24, leaders of the Chinese-ruled city's democracy movement, in August, for illegal assembly.

They are serving six, seven and eight-month jail terms, respectively.

Their sentencing came as a blow to the youth-led push for universal suffrage and prompted accusations of political interference.

The trio helped lead the largely peaceful "Umbrella Movement" that blocked major roads for 79 days in 2014, demanding Beijing grant Hong Kong full democracy.

Hong Kong has been governed under a "one country, two systems" formula since its return from British to Chinese rule in 1997, allowing freedoms not enjoyed on mainland China that include an independent judiciary.

In a short hearing on Tuesday, Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal granted the trio leave to appeal, with the case to be heard on January 16 and the trio granted bail till then.

The next legal steps will likely be scrutinized closely, with the jailing having shaken confidence in Hong Kong's vaunted rule of law.

Wong, Chow and Law were sentenced last year to community service for unlawful assembly. However, Reuters reported that Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen had overruled other senior colleagues to re-open the case and push for a harsher sentence that eventually led to their imprisonment.

U.N. human rights experts urged Hong Kong to uphold the rights of the trio.

"We urge the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal to consider the cases of Wong, Law and Chow in accordance with Hong Kong's obligations under international human rights law," David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Michel Forst, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said in a joint statement from Geneva on Monday.

"We call on the Hong Kong authorities to respect the independence of judicial powers and the rule of law," they said, noting also a tightening of control by Chinese authorities in recent times over Hong Kong's affairs.

On Saturday, China's largely rubber-stamp parliament formally extended a law banning disrespect of the national anthem to cover Hong Kong, another example of a move that critics have said undermines the Chinese-ruled city's freedoms.

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