Nine leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement have been found guilty of public nuisance in a landmark trial which threatens long-standing freedoms in the Chinese-controlled city.
The protests, which took their name from the anti-austerity Occupy movements that gripped the west in 2011, aimed to bring fully democratic elections to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
They later developed into a mostly peaceful 79-day shutdown of the commercial district of Hong Kong known as the “umbrella movement”, after the umbrellas used by supporters to fend off pepper spray from the police.
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It represented the biggest public challenge to Beijing’s authority since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and the subsequent crackdown made international celebrities of the movement’s leaders.
Leaders of the student groups, including Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, were sentenced to up to eight months in jail in 2017 for storming a government compound. Nine more have now been found guilty, with Law professor Benny Tai, retired sociologist Chan Kin-man, and retired pastor Chu Yiu-ming facing up to seven years in prison for public nuisance offences.
According to Al Jazeera “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.
While widely anticipated, the ruling has nevertheless been seized upon by opponents of the regime as evidence of the further erosion of freedoms in the former British territory.
Reuters reports that “since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, critics say Beijing has reneged on its commitment to maintain Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and freedoms under a co-called 'one country, two systems' arrangement”.
The last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, called Tuesday’s ruling “appallingly divisive”, while Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch said that “Hong Kong courts, by labelling peaceful protests in pursuit of rights as public nuisance, are sending a terrible message that will likely embolden the government to prosecute more peaceful activists, further chilling free expression in Hong Kong”.
The protests have been followed by “a long stretch of frustration and defeat for pro-democracy activists”, The New York Times says.
Hong Kong’s leader at the time, Leung Chun-ying, refused to step down, though he did not seek another term in 2017. Lawmakers rejected a proposal that would have allowed Hong Kong voters to directly elect their leader, known as the chief executive, but only from a slate of candidates approved by a pro-establishment election committee.
The Financial Times also reports that “several dozen other democracy activists have been imprisoned or are facing trials related to the protests and wider democracy movement they spawned”.
The paper adds that “the government has also removed outspoken lawmakers from Hong Kong’s partially elected Legislative Council, issued an unprecedented ban on a pro-independence political party and effectively expelled a senior Financial Times editor”.
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