Student leaders of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests released on bail

Charged with inciting unlawful protests against the Chinese government, the activists' release comes amid uncertainty with what China's 'one country, two systems' approach means for freedom of speech within the city.

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Joshua Wong (l.) and Nathan Law (r.), student leaders of Hong Kong's pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement," were released on bail on Oct. 24.

Hong Kong's highest court freed pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law on bail Tuesday pending an appeal of their prison sentences after they were convicted of sparking massive protests in 2014.

In another development highlighting concerns about human rights in the city, the Chinese and Swedish governments confirmed the release of Gui Minhai, one of five Hong Kong booksellers believed to have been abducted and spirited to mainland China for selling gossipy titles about elite Chinese politicians to Chinese readers.

Mr. Wong and Mr. Law were imprisoned after the justice secretary succeeded in getting an earlier, more lenient sentence overturned, raising concerns about political interference in the courts and dealing a setback to the movement for full democracy in the Chinese-controlled city.

The decision to release Wong, Hong Kong's most famous activist, and Law, a disqualified lawmaker, coincidentally came the same day China's Communist Party was ending a twice-a-decade congress in Beijing that expanded President Xi Jinping's power.

Though the events were unrelated, they highlighted the widening rift between mainland China and semiautonomous Hong Kong.

Wong and Law told reporters outside the Court of Final Appeal that they were granted bail until their appeals are heard on Nov. 7.

They said they were looking forward to having meals with their families after what Law said were some "uncomfortable times" during their two months in prison.

Even though they've been bailed, they said that it was unclear if their appeals will be successful and that they're prepared to go back to prison.

"There will be more occasions in the future when our group of young people will go to prison, but we will persist in keeping the faith and working together to fight for democracy," said Wong, who is also awaiting sentencing for a separate contempt case.

"The government can lock up our bodies but cannot lock up our minds," said Wong, who was sporting a prison-issued buzz cut. He added that their time in prison was a chance for them to strengthen their determination.

"The world is watching the result of the case," and what it means for rule of law and the "one country, two systems" principle that guarantees Hong Kong wide autonomy and civil liberties unseen in mainland China, Law said.

Broadcaster RTHK reported that Judge Geoffrey Ma required each to post $6,400 for bail, surrender their travel documents, and report to police once a week.

Wong and Law were originally given community service sentences that let them avoid prison after convictions for involvement in an unlawful assembly that kicked off the "Umbrella Movement" protests.

Hong Kong's justice secretary, however, requested that the courts review those punishments. In August, Wong was given six months in prison and Law received eight months. The move sparked fears that authorities were undermining the city's independent judiciary.

Wong gained fame, including a starring role in a Netflix documentary, because he was still a teen when he helped spearhead the 2014 protests against Beijing's decision to restrict elections that brought major Hong Kong thoroughfares to a standstill for 79 days.

Law, also a former protest leader, was elected to the legislature last year, becoming the city's youngest-ever lawmaker, but was disqualified from office after a government legal challenge.

Wong had expressed a desire to run for office, but the prison sentence prevents him from doing so for five years.

A third student leader, Alex Chow, didn't request bail in the same case.

Meanwhile, Sweden's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it was informed by Chinese authorities that Mr. Gui, the bookseller, who has Swedish citizenship, had been released from Chinese detention. Gui's daughter, however, disputed the news.

Ministry spokesman Patric Nilsson said the information came "overnight," but he declined to give further details.

China's foreign ministry said in a brief statement that Gui had been released on Oct. 17 after "serving out his prison term for which he had been sentenced for the crime of having caused a traffic accident." It gave no information about his whereabouts or other details.

Gui disappeared from his Thai vacation home in late 2015 and resurfaced in January 2016 on China's state broadcaster CCTV, where he said he returned to China to turn himself in for an old crime.

His daughter Angela Gui said in a statement that her father was supposed to have been released Oct. 17 after serving a two-year sentence for an alleged traffic offense dating from 2003.

However, she said her father's whereabouts were still unknown, adding that on Monday she "received a strange phone call from someone claiming to be my father" saying he intended to apply for a Swedish passport but first wanted to spend time with his ill mother.

"To my knowledge, my grandmother is not ill," the daughter said. "My father is not in fact with her. It is still very unclear where he is. I am deeply concerned for his well-being."

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said it was "good news," but added that Sweden's Foreign Ministry was working on establishing where Gui was.

"We want to know where he is there so we can get in touch with him and know that everything is fine," Mr. Lofven told the Swedish news agency TT.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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