HONG KONG: Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten said Tuesday the move by the city government to seek a retrial of young democracy activists which eventually saw them jailed was a “political decision”, as he called for dialogue to heal entrenched divisions.
Patten was the last governor of Hong Kong before it was handed back to China in 1997 and has repeatedly spoken out about the importance of protecting its democratic freedoms.
Since the handover, Hong Kong has been ruled under a semi-autonomous “one country, two systems” deal which allows rights unseen on the mainland, but Beijing is increasingly tightening its grip.
Prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong and two fellow campaigners were jailed last month for their role in a protest that sparked massive Umbrella Movement rallies in 2014 calling for political reforms.
They had previously served community service for the same charges, but the government successfully sought to overturn the non-custodial sentences.
“I don’t seek to question the judges, the courts, the system, except where political decisions are made,” Patten told reporters at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
“I think in the case of Joshua Wong and his colleagues it was a political decision by the secretary of justice to appeal sentences of a lower court,” he said.
He recalled how the justice secretary, Rimsky Yuen, had recently given a lecture at Oxford University, where Patten is chancellor, and had described Hong Kong as “Asia’s international hub for the rule of law”.
“I strongly endorse that proposition, but I’m not sure that what’s happened is the best example to give of how that’s going to work,” he said.
While Patten has said he does not agree with young campaigners’ calls for independence for Hong Kong, which have infuriated Beijing, he said they should be given the opportunity to discuss their views with authorities.
It comes as university heads have said they will not tolerate posters and banners advocating independence on campuses which have appeared since the start of term.
Student unions have criticised them for curtailing their freedom of speech.
As the row escalates, city leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday there was “no room for any discussion on the independence of Hong Kong”.
Patten questioned how many government officials had ever discussed the issue with the students, having been to Hong Kong University on his last visit to explain why he felt the campaign for independence was misguided.
“I hope there’ll be a dialogue,” he said.
“You can’t simply expect people to accept your values or standards or political judgements without talking to them about it,” he said.
“You can’t trample ideas into the dust.”
He also advised students to be “restrained” in putting their arguments and to ask the government to come and talk to them.
Patten’s speech came just ahead of a court hearing for nine pro-democracy activists, including three veteran Umbrella Movement campaigners.
That hearing Tuesday afternoon was adjourned until January. -AFP