Published: Thu, April 11, 2019
Global News | By Blake Casey

Hong Kong: guilty verdict against 'Umbrella' protest leaders a "crushing blow"

Hong Kong: guilty verdict against 'Umbrella' protest leaders a

Nine leaders of the 2014 illegal "Occupy Central" movement were found guilty of public nuisance offenses on Tuesday at a court of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Scores of supporters clapped in support of the nine defendants - a law professor, two lawmakers and former student activists - after the judge delivered his verdict following a trial that critics say highlights shrinking political freedoms in the former British colony.

Among them are three prominent activists - Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man - who are seen as the faces of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

Eight of the group, excluding Reverend Chu, were found guilty of incitement to commit public nuisance, while five were found guilty of "incitement to incite" public nuisance.

They were each found guilty of at least one public nuisance charge.

"What we are facing is the most powerful autocracy in human history and we have to take back our democratic rights from its hand", a tearful Tai told his supporters, referring to China's increasingly assertive control over the city.

"We are here to witness the court's demonstration of justice by convicting those who damaged Hong Kong's rule of law", he said.

In a summary of his judgement, Justice Johnny Chan noted that the concept of civil disobedience is "recognised in Hong Kong" but it wasn't a defence to a criminal charge.

The co-founders of the "Occupy Central" campaign - legal Professor Benny Tai, sociology professor Chan Kin-man and retired pastor Chu Yiu-ming - are facing charges related to the planning and implementation of the campaign which became part of the large-scale pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests which were carried out 79 days between September and December 2014.

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The court did not immediately announce sentences.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have described the prosecution as politically motivated, saying the use of vaguely worded public nuisance laws against protesters will have a chilling effect on free speech in Hong Kong. "The authorities appear intent on trying to silence any debate about sensitive issues in Hong Kong, especially those relating to democracy and autonomy", said Man-kei Tam, Amnesty's Hong Kong director.

In a 2014 photo a protester holds an umbrella during a performance on a main road in the occupied areas outside government headquarters in Hong Kong's Admiralty.

The nine defendants were accused of inciting and mobilising protesters during the demonstrations that sought to pressure Beijing to allow full democracy.

The movement fizzled without winning concessions from the Hong Kong government for free elections and the pro-democracy movement has struggled to retain a high-profile in recent years.

According to a tally released a year ago Kong Tsung-gan, a Hong Kong writer and activist, the government has prosecuted 266 people over the Umbrella Movement, with 118 convicted.

China's foreign ministry said it supports the guilty verdict because the protests "seriously damaged the prosperity, stability and normal life order" of Hong Kong people. "I still believe in the power of love and peace".

"The offense of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance does not have the undesirable effect of curtailing or suppressing civil disobedience at its formation stage or suppressing human rights as the defendants contended", it read.

Judge Chan denied his ruling would impact the ability of Hong Kongers to protest. "It can not be reasonably argued that a charge of conspiracy to cause public nuisance would generate a chilling effect in society", he wrote. The Hong Kong government past year banned a local political party that advocated the territory's independence from Beijing.

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