All nine organizers of Hong Kong’s massive pro-democracy protest in 2014 that blocked roads serving the city’s financial district for 79 days were found guilty of at least one public nuisance offense by a local court on Tuesday.
The charge carries a maximum punishment of seven years under the city’s law.
Hong Kong was brought to a standstill on September 28, 2014, when tens of thousands of protesters swarmed into the city’s Admiralty and Central districts demanding genuine universal suffrage. They were galvanized by the vetting of candidates running for the city’s top office, as Beijing refused to allow public nominations in an election framework it handed down.
The growing numbers of protesters rushing into key roads prompted the police to fire teargas and constables even threatened to use lethal force to quell the disobedience. The protracted Occupy Central sit-in stretching from September to December was also known as the “Umbrella Movement” due to protesters using umbrellas to shield themselves as the police fired teargas.
Beijing and the Hong Kong government blamed a number of prominent pro-democracy figures for the demonstration unseen in the city’s history, although it was business as usual for the city’s financial district and there was no loss of life or serious injuries throughout the protest.
On Tuesday, the trio of Occupy Central organizers – University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai, Chinese University of Hong Kong sociology professor Chan Kin-man and priest Chu Yiu-ming – were all found guilty of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance at a district court after they were indicted by Hong Kong authorities last year.
Tai and Chan were also convicted of inciting others to cause a public nuisance and the two have appealed to the judge not to impose an immediate custodial sentence on the ailing priest.
Tai and Chan’s defense lawyer Gerald McCoy told the court during mitigation on Tuesday afternoon that both his clients “don’t care” what punishment was coming their way and their only care was that Chu, 75, not be put behind bars because he had been suffering from a number of medical conditions, according to RTHK.
McCoy also added that neither Tai nor Chan would submit any mitigation letters.
A number of incumbent and former lawmakers were also been found guilty of inciting others to cause a public nuisance. If jailed for more than one month, they could be stripped of their seats.
Judge Johnny Chan said although civil disobedience was recognized in Hong Kong, it could not be used as a defense for criminal charges. He said the obstruction of the roads was “unreasonable and hence unwarranted by the law.” The judge also ruled that the public nuisance charges “do not give rise to any chilling effect on the exercise of the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly.”
In a 267-page ruling, the judge said the three organizers knew that excessive inconvenience would be caused to the general public, but the occupation impinged “unreasonably upon the rights of others.”
“The unreasonableness of the obstruction was such that the significant and protected right to demonstrate should be displaced. The act was one not warranted by law,” read the ruling.
The judge added that the three organizers were “naive” to think the government would introduce their version of universal suffrage “overnight with a click of fingers” or that tens of thousands of people would just leave overnight even if the administration had made a positive response.
A crowd of about 200 supporters clapped and shouted slogans as the defendants left the courtroom after the proceedings were adjourned to Wednesday for more mitigation. All the defendants were freed on bail for the evening.
Prior to Tuesday’s ruling, Joshua Wong, a student leader of the protest who is now known internationally, had already spent time in prison with his peers for unlawful assembly offenses.
Former governor blasts ‘divisive ruling’
Meanwhile, former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten blasted the guilty verdicts as “appallingly divisive,” adding that it used “anachronistic common law charges,” in a statement issued by the UK-based pressure group Hong Kong Watch.
Patten, who was the last governor of the British colony before it was handed back to Beijing in 1997, said the trial was the result of a “vengeful” campaign by Beijing and Hong Kong authorities.
“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, [the ruling] seems appallingly divisive … in a vengeful pursuit of political events,” he said.
Amnesty International Hong Kong also took issue with prosecution’s decision to lay common-law charges against the defendants – each of which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison – instead of using specific statutory offenses that would have less severe penalties.
The group said in a statement that “today’s guilty verdicts are a crushing blow for freedom of expression and peaceful protest in Hong Kong … the government has used vague charges in their relentless persecution of the umbrella protests, abusing the law to silence debate about sensitive issues such as Hong Kong democracy and autonomy.”