Hong Kong democracy activists plead not guilty over 2014 protests

First trials of Umbrella movement activists take place amid intense public interest

Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai and Dr Chan Kin-man speak to media after the first day of their court hearing at West Kowloon court in Hong Kong. Photograph:  Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai and Dr Chan Kin-man speak to media after the first day of their court hearing at West Kowloon court in Hong Kong. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

 

Three of Hong Kong’s most high-profile democracy activists have pleaded not guilty to charges of public nuisance for their involvement in nearly three months of street protests in 2014 that brought parts of the city to a standstill.

The three men face up to seven years in prison if convicted under a colonial-era law for encouraging mass protests that became known as the Umbrella movement and called for direct elections for Hong Kong’s leader, a position that is in effect appointed by Beijing.

Sociology professor Chan Kin-man (59), law professor Benny Tai (54) and baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming (74) formed “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” in 2013, saying if the government did not deliver universal suffrage the following year they would take to the streets. The trio eventually merged their group with student protesters, led by Joshua Wong, and spent 79 days camped out in front of the government headquarters. But the protests did not lead to any changes.

In the four years since the protest, freedoms in Hong Kong have been dramatically curtailed, with the government aggressively targeting pro-democracy activists with what some say are politically motivated prosecutions, barring candidates from standing for election, removing popularly elected members of the city’s legislature and banning a fringe political party. Last month, the government expelled a Financial Times journalist for hosting a talk on the topic of independence.

Public interest

Hundreds attended the trial of a total of nine activists on Monday, which had to be moved to a larger courthouse in anticipation of the intense public interest. Protesters gathered outside to support the defendants, some chanting, “Peaceful resistance! I wanted real universal suffrage!” according to Agence France-Presse.

“This prosecution is an act of retaliation aimed at silencing the pro-democracy movement,” Mei-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said in a statement. “The charges against all nine activists must be dropped, as the government’s case is based solely on the legitimate exercise of the rights to free speech and peaceful protest.

“The prosecutors are using deliberately vague and ambiguous charges that will have chilling consequences for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Hong Kong.”

The prosecutor, Andrew Bruce, argued the trio’s call for protests to occupy streets had caused a “common injury done to the public” and accused them of supporting the demonstration “by way of unlawful obstruction of public places and roads”, according to AFP.

Before the trial, Mr Chan gave a farewell speech at the university at which he taught for more than 20 years, according to AFP, and announced plans to retire early next year.

“So long as we are not crushed by imprisonment and trial and do not become overly frustrated and angry, then we will become stronger and we can inspire many more people,” he said. “Only in the darkest hours, we can see the stars.” – Guardian