Hong Kong – A Hong Kong court has found nine leaders of the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” pro-democracy protests guilty on charges of incitement and conspiracy for their role in leading the mass protest.
Those convicted include cofounders of the “Occupy Central” protests – Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, 75, law professor Benny Tai, 54 and retired scholar Chan Kin-man, 60.
The group included sitting legislators, professors, student activists and a religious leader who played key roles in leading the 79-day democracy protest.
Tuesday’s verdict from a High Court judge means each of the nine is facing a maximum penalty of seven years in jail for charges they say are politically motivated.
The sentencing was delayed until Wednesday as many of the defendants submitted mitigating evidence.
All nine defendants denied the charges, arguing that they should not be prosecuted based on speeches they had made.
Chu, Tai and Chan have been charged with three offences relating to public nuisance. The trio is found guilty of conspiracy to cause public nuisance. Tai and Chan are also convicted of inciting others to cause a public nuisance.
The trio appeared calm in the dock as the verdict was read out in a packed courtroom.
In a summary of his judgement, Justice Johnny Chan noted that while the concept of civil disobedience is “recognised in Hong Kong”, it was not a defence to a criminal charge.
“The offence 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,” the summary read.
A huge crowd voiced its support as the movement leaders and members walked out of the courtroom after learning their fate.
Prosecutors had relied on media interviews to build their case, including a press conference in 2013 where the movement’s co-founders announced the campaign “Occupy Central with Love and Peace”.
The event was termed a “public manifestation” of the activists’ conspiracy to commit the crimes by the prosecutors.
The verdict was termed the “most symbolic” in recent years by Samson Yuen, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Lingnan University Department of Political Science.
“I think it really shows how conservative Hong Kong courts are, said Yuen who does research on political participation and activism in Hong Kong.
“Because they don’t seem to take civil disobedience as a justification.”
Yuen pointed out that while he was not surprised by the ruling on the three co-founders, he was shocked to see the other six – whom he said had minor roles in the protests – convicted.
“The ruling serves as a message that everyone who was there, they could be found guilty.”
He added that activists will have a “bigger” political cost to pay while taking part in social movements in the future, even though they are not the leading figures.
Tai, speaking to Reuters news agency earlier, said they would continue the struggle for full democracy.
“The reason that we committed civil disobedience is because we want justice for Hong Kong people.”