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Student leaders Lester Shum, Alex Chow, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law hold hands as they walk into the High Court to face verdict on charges relating to the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, also known as Occupy Central protests, in Hong Kong, China August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu(reuters_tickers)
By James Pomfret and Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's legal chief denied any "political motive" in seeking jail for three young pro-democracy activists on Friday, responding to a Reuters report that he had overruled other legal officials who had initially advised against pursuing the case.
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 a youth-led push for universal suffrage. Several protests by their supporters are planned in 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.
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.
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."
Yuen added there "hasn't been any political motive at all" in the case.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said in response to the sentences that "no one can use the excuse of so-called democracy and freedom to carry out illegal violent acts".
But the sentencing has stoked broader international fears for Hong Kong's constitutionally enshrined freedoms, part of a "one country, two systems" deal under which the British returned the territory to China in 1997, as well as perceptions of political meddling.
Hong Kong enjoys a free, highly respected judiciary, unlike on the mainland where the Communist Party controls the courts which rarely challenge its decisions.
"We are concerned by the decision of the Hong Kong authorities to seek a tougher sentence," said Kristin Haworth, a spokesperson for the U.S. 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."
U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called the re-sentencing of the trio "unjust".
"This injustice offends the basic notions of freedom and democracy and deserves the swift and unified condemnation of the international community," she said in a statement.US senator and once presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, together with representative Chris Smith, also criticized what they called the "shameful" sentencing.
Their statement drew ire from the Chinese Foreign Ministry's representative office in Hong Kong.
"We ask the U.S. government to follow the basic principles of international relations, and oppose and stop the aforementioned congressmen's speech and action that oppose China and stir up troubles in Hong Kong," the office said in a statement.
Britain said it was vital Hong Kong's young people had a voice in politics and it hoped the sentencing would not discourage legitimate protest. The office of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen expressed "much regret" over the sentence.
China's conservative state-run tabloid, the Global Times, welcomed the jail terms, saying "the law has shown its authority".
"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 newspaper wrote.
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.
(Additional reporting by Gao Liangping and Christian Shepherd in Beijing, and Jessica Macy Yu in Taipei and; Editing by Nick Macfie)