A district court in Hong Kong on Wednesday handed down custodial sentences of eight to 16 months to key organizers of the city’s 2014 mass Occupy Central protests – also known as the Umbrella Movement – that disrupted Hong Kong’s central business district for 79 days.
Benny Tai, a University of Hong Kong law professor, and Chan Kin-man, a Chinese University of Hong Kong sociology professor, received sentences of 16 months each for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. Their partner in the protests, priest and veteran democrat Chu Yiu-ming, was given a suspended prison term in light of his health and age. Tai and Chan were also sentenced to another eight months – to be served concurrently – on a charge of inciting others to cause a public nuisance.
The trio first conceived of occupying public spaces and blocking roads in the financial district of the former British colony after Beijing ruled out public nomination of candidates contending for the city’s top office. Instead, only those vetted by a nomination committee staffed by Beijing loyalists were declared able to stand in elections.
The trio began the Occupy protest in September 2014, which saw riot police deployed and tear gas fired. However Hong Kong’s financial and business sectors were largely unaffected by the protracted sit-ins, which ended to no avail in December that year.
Tai and Chan have been sent to the Lai Chi Kok Reception Center in Kowloon. Even if they decide to appeal against their sentences and file bail applications, they will remain locked up for however many days it takes the Court of Appeal to process their applications, according to local papers.
Of two incumbent legislators previously found guilty by the court, the sentencing of Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan was postponed until early June after she informed the court that she would soon undergo surgery to treat a serious brain tumor. The other lawmaker, Shiu Ka-chun was sentenced to eight months in prison, meaning he could be stripped of his seat under Hong Kong law if two thirds of his colleagues vote to oust a convicted person from the chamber.
During the same court proceedings, other high-profile participants indicted on charges related to the protests were spared prison terms, and given either suspended sentences or community service orders.
Judge Johnny Chan said before sentencing that custodial terms were the only appropriate punishments for some key organizers to “reflect the seriousness of their offences”, adding that he had already taken into consideration that their offences did not involve violence.
The judge stressed that their incitement could have caused excessive damage and inconvenience to the general public and the livelihood of others, neither of which, he stated, would fall within the parameters of civil disobedience.
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. But activists and rights groups have argued that the use of the vaguely worded public nuisance laws, combined with a steeper common law punishment, is an insidious blow to free speech and a new tactic from prosecutors. Amnesty declared that the jailed men were “prisoners of conscience” and that the record breaking sentences set a “dangerous precedent”.
“The long sentences sends a chilling warning to all that there will be serious consequences for advocating for democracy,” said Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on China, according to a report by AFP.
Beijing has made clear its wrath over the Occupy protests, which it considered open revolt against its authority. Chinese cadres have applauded the conviction of organizers, while Western countries have expressed concerns over shrinking rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. In a statement released by the British Consulate-General in Hong Kong on Wednesday, a spokesperson said:
“Earlier today, a number of activists involved in the 2014 Occupy Central movement were sentenced at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court.
“Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are both guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration. It is important that these, and all other rights and freedoms which are guaranteed under the Joint Declaration, are fully respected. It would be deeply concerning if the outcome for these individuals were to deter the people of Hong Kong from participating in peaceful protest in the future.”
Following the sentencing, there were emotional scenes outside the courthouse when the leaders were driven away in a prison van as supporters shouted “Add Oil!”, a popular Cantonese phrase to signal encouragement. Speaking afterwards, Tanya Chan told the crowds: “I hope Hong Kongers will not lose hope, will not be afraid, will not have regrets or back down now”.