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Hong Kong legal chief denies political motive in jailing democrats as criticism mounts

[HONG KONG] 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 againist 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 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.

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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.

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 there "hasn't been any political motive at all"in the case.

But 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.

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 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".

"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.

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 in future. The office of Taiwan President Tsai Ing Wen expressed "much regret" over the sentence.

But 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 paper 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.