Hong Kong democracy leaders plead not guilty in Umbrella Movement trial

Published November 19, 2018, 8:44 PM

by Francine Ciasico

By Agence France-Presse

Three leading Hong Kong democracy campaigners pleaded not guilty on Monday to public nuisance charges over their involvement in massive rallies calling for political reform, as room for opposition in the semi-autonomous city shrinks under an assertive China.

The 'Occupy Central' trio are facing charges based on colonial-era law, and could be jailed for years if found guilty (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
The ‘Occupy Central’ trio are facing charges based on colonial-era law, and could be jailed for years if found guilty (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

The pioneering trio are among nine activists all facing public nuisance charges for their participation in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. The charges are based on colonial-era law and carry jail terms of up to seven years.

Sociology professor Chan Kin-man, 59, law professor Benny Tai, 54, and baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, 74, founded the “Occupy Central” movement in 2013 and joined with the student-led Umbrella Movement which brought parts of the city to a standstill for months, calling for free elections for the city’s leader.

The activists were welcomed outside court by hundreds of supporters shouting: “Peaceful resistance! I wanted real universal suffrage!”

Prosecutor Andrew Bruce argued that the mass protests had caused a “common injury done to the public”, who had been affected by the blockage of major roads.

He accused the trio of taking part in and supporting the demonstration “by way of unlawful obstruction of public places and roads”.

‘Unreasonable charges’

Occupy Central called for the occupation of Hong Kong’s business district if the public was not given a fair vote for the city’s leader, who is appointed by a pro-Beijing committee.

It was overtaken by the student movement that exploded in September 2014 when police fired tear gas on gathering crowds.

The Occupy trio urged people to join what became known as the Umbrella Movement as protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas and pepper spray.

The movement failed to win reform and since then activists have been prosecuted, with some jailed.

The court was shown video clips by the prosecution Monday afternoon which included a press conference from 2013 in which the trio explained the Occupy Central movement.

In one clip Tai said the success of the movement “hinges on civic awakening” but added that civil disobedience must be “non-violent”.

Speaking outside court after the first day of the trial, Chan said the activists had pleaded not guilty because the charges were “unreasonable”.

The trio face three charges each of conspiracy to cause public nuisance, incitement to cause public nuisance and incitement to incite public nuisance.

Chan warned that if the case was successful it would encroach on freedom of expression in Hong Kong.

“I think this lawsuit is not just one faced by the nine of us…Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and rule of law are also being tried in this lawsuit,” added Tai.

Chu pointed out that the clips shown by the prosecution had highlighted the group’s “emphasis on peace and non-violence”.