Handing down the judgement in the Court of Final Appeal he also said had been "inappropriate" to hand the sentences down retrospectively.
Hong Kong's top court ruled on Tuesday that the three student leaders convicted for their roles in a protest that led to the pro-democracy Occupy Movement in 2014 should not be jailed, overturning the prison sentences given to them a year ago.
Finding the punishment to be inadequate, the Court of Appeal, upon petition for review from the Secretary of Justice, increased those sentences in October 2016 to six, eight and seven months for Wong, Law, and Chow, respectively. Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow had served roughly two months in jail before they were granted bail last November.
The protest sparked the "Umbrella movement," which pushed for full democracy in Hong Kong and brought parts of the city to a standstill for three months.
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But they warned that similar protests in the future would be treated as acts of violence under new criteria.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee of wide-ranging freedoms, including freedom of speech, but critics accuse Beijing of creeping interference in the city's affairs and the government of toeing the Beijing line. "At the same time it's not the time for any congratulations or celebrations". "In such a case involving violence, a deterrent sentence may be called for and will not be objectionable on the ground that it creates a "chilling effect" on the exercise of a constitutional right".
Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says the decision could "be used by police to restrict freedom of expression", with any public political gathering subject to a "fluid" definition of unlawful assembly. He said the fight for democracy would continue.
A bi-partisan group of United States politicians including Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Chris Smith nominated "the entire pro-democracy movement" in Hong Kong for the coveted award.
According to the report by Reuters, dozens of other democracy activists have been jailed or are facing court proceedings that could see them sent to prison for various forms of rights activism, "in what some see as a concerted attempt by authorities to curtail the momentum of the city's youth-led democracy movement". The ruling "set a risky precedent for sending people to prison for protesting in the future", says Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch.