The nine leaders behind Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement of 2014 will be sentenced on Wednesday (April 10) after they were convicted of public nuisance related charges connected to the largest civil disobedience movement seen in the city which brought it to a standstill for months.
All were found guilty on Tuesday and now face possible long prison terms.
Three of the prominent leaders – sociology professor Chan Kin Man, 60, law professor Benny Tai, 54, and Baptist minister Chu Yiu Ming, 75 – were convicted of conspiracy to cause public nuisance. Chan and Tai were also each convicted of inciting others to cause public nuisance.
District Court Judge Johnny Chan wrote in a 268-page judgement that while Hong Kong courts recognised the notion of civil disobedience, it “is not a defence to a criminal charge”.
“It is naive to suggest that a concession to introduce the form of universal suffrage advocated by the trio could be made by the government overnight with a click of fingers,” he wrote.
Five of the remaining six accused, Civic Party legislator Tanya Chan, social welfare lawmaker Shiu Ka Chun, former student leaders Tommy Cheung and Eason Chung, as well as activist Raphael Wong were each convicted of two charges – inciting others to cause public nuisance and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance. Former legislator Lee Wing Tat was convicted of one count of inciting others to cause public nuisance.
Judge Chan also dismissed suggestions that the charges would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech or assembly, or that they would curtail or suppress human rights as the defendants claimed.
But former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten called the verdict “appallingly divisive”, adding that the trial was the result of a “vengeful” campaign by Hong Kong authorities.
In a statement issued by British group Hong Kong Watch, Mr Patten said: “At a time when most people would have thought that the aim of the Hong Kong government should be to bring the whole community together, it seems appallingly divisive to use anachronistic common law charges in a vengeful pursuit of political events which took place in 2014.”
China’s Foreign Ministry said it supported the Hong Kong government in “punishing” the movement’s organisers. Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Tuesday in Beijing : “I also want to remind people in other countries that it is unreasonable to see this as a damage to the freedom of Hong Kong society. Just look at what happened in other countries and you can draw a fair conclusion.”
All those convicted are out on bail and Judge Chan is expected to hand down sentences after hearing further mitigation pleas.
On Tuesday afternoon, both Chan and Tai pleaded with the judge through their lawyer to not impose a jail term on Chu as he suffers from a number of medical conditions. Chan and Tai did not submit any mitigation.
Chu made a speech that brought tears to some in the courtroom as he recounted how Tai had asked him to join the “Occupy Central” movement.
Chan, Tai and Chu founded the pro-democracy “Occupy Central” movement in 2013. It later merged with the student-led Umbrella Movement in 2014 as protesters demanded that people be allowed to elect the city’s leader, instead of having one appointed by a pro-Beijing committee.
The massive protests, centred on Hong Kong’s Central district, led to gridlock in the city for 79 days.
During the three-week trial, prosecutors had argued that the mass protests were a public nuisance as they had caused a “common injury” to the public who were affected by the blockage of major roads.
Addressing the media in the morning outside the West Kowloon courthouse building before the verdict was delivered, all nine said they were prepared for the consequences.
Chan said he had “no regret for what we have done” even though the verdict would be “very dear” on each of their lives. He added that “what we did is according to our conscience”.
Tai said he believed that his supporters would “continue to strive for Hong Kong’s democracy” and would “persist and not give up”.
Hundreds of supporters of the democracy activists gathered outside the courthouse early on Tuesday, carrying placards and chanting slogans of “We want true elections!”.
Hong Kong’s Justice Department brought charges under the rarely used colonial-era public nuisance category against the Umbrella Movement leaders more than two years after the protests ended, a move criticised by human rights and pro-democracy groups.
The Occupy Central movement reflected growing frustrations, especially among the young, over Hong Kong’s future direction but the protests failed to win any reforms or concessions from Beijing, which rules the city under the “one country, two systems” principle.
Since the protests, several activists have been prosecuted, some jailed, and a number of pro-democracy lawmakers banned from contesting elections.