Chu Yiu-ming (2nd R), Benny Tai (C), Chan Kin-man (L) chant slogans before entering the West Kowloon Magistrates Court in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Anthony Wallace/ AFP
A group of Hong Kong activists arrived at court for sentencing on Wednesday after being convicted this month for their role in organising mass pro-democracy protests in 2014 that paralysed the city for months and infuriated Beijing.
The likely jail terms followed convictions that have renewed alarm over shrinking freedoms under an assertive China, which has rejected demands by Hong Kongers asking for a greater say in how the financial hub is run.
Nine activists were all found guilty earlier in April of at least one charge in a prosecution that deployed rarely used colonial-era public nuisance laws over their participation in the Umbrella Movement protests, which called for free elections for the city’s leader.
It is the latest blow to the beleaguered pro-democracy camp, which has seen key figures jailed or banned from standing as legislators since their civil disobedience movement shook the city but failed to win any concessions.
The charges carry steep jail terms of up to seven years.
Among the most prominent members of the group on trial are sociology professor Chan Kin-man, 60, law professor Benny Tai, 54, and Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, 75.
The trio founded a civil disobedience campaign known as “Occupy Central” in 2013.
Their original idea of taking to the streets to demand a fairer system and the right to directly elect Hong Kong’s leader was a precursor to the student-led Umbrella Movement a year later that brought parts of the city to a standstill for over two months.
All three were found guilty of conspiracy to commit public nuisance. Tai and Chan were also convicted of incitement to commit public nuisance although all three were acquitted of incitement to incite public nuisance.
Of the remaining six defendants — a group of younger protest leaders, including two sitting lawmakers — all were convicted of at least one public nuisance charge.
As the defendants arrived outside court Wednesday morning they were met by a noisy crowd of supporters shouting “Add Oil!,” a popular Cantonese phrase to signal encouragement.
Others sang “We Shall Overcome,” the gospel song that became an anthem of the civil rights movement in the United States.
Tanya Chan, one of the nine defendants and a legislator in the city’s parliament, was in tears as she addressed the crowd.
“Stay strong and be positive,” she said.
Reverend Chu said he expected a spell behind bars.
“Do not give up our fight because we are going to jail,” he said.
Many supporters were holding umbrellas, an emblem of the 2014 protests after they were used by young protesters to defend themselves against police batons, tear gas canisters and pepper spray.
Joseph Lo, 59, was wearing a yellow T-shirt with the phrase “I was not incited” — a reference to the charges laid against the protest leaders.
“We were not incited by these nine people,” he told AFP, adding he hit the streets in 2014 because of the refusal to grant Hong Kongers universal suffrage and the police’s decision to fire tear gas at protesters.
While Hong Kong enjoys rights unseen on the Chinese mainland under a 50-year handover agreement between Britain and China, there are fears those liberties are being eroded as Beijing flexes its muscles and stamps down on dissent.
The city’s leader is elected by largely pro-Beijing appointees.
Authorities in Hong Kong and the mainland have defended the prosecutions as a necessary measure to punish the leaders of a direct action movement that took over key intersections of the city for many weeks.
Judge Johnny Chan ruled that the 2014 protests were not protected by Hong Kong’s free speech laws because the demonstrations impinged on the rights of others.
But activists and rights groups say the use of the vaguely worded public nuisance laws — and wielding the steeper common law punishment — was a hammer blow to free speech and a new tactic from prosecutors.
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