A Hong Kong district court has found nine activists guilty of public nuisance crimes for their roles in organizing massive pro-democracy rallies that took over city streets and became known as the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014.
The rallies were spurred by outrage in Hong Kong over the Chinese government’s plans to limit voters’ choices among candidates to lead the city’s government — a move that was seen as attacking its autonomy.
From Chongqing, NPR’s Rob Schmitz reports for our Newscast unit:
“Those convicted include three prominent activists who are seen as the faces of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement: sociology professor Chan Kin-man, law professor Benny Tai, and Baptist Minister Chu Yiu-Ming. They could be jailed for up to seven years for their part in the Umbrella protests.”
That trio was found guilty of conspiracy to commit public nuisance. Along with their co-defendants, all but one of them were found guilty of either inciting public nuisance or “incitement to incite” others.
Human rights groups are criticizing the court’s verdict, with Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch saying of the outcome, “No other word for this than outrageous.”
As they arrived at court for Tuesday’s hearing, the activists smiled and spoke to crowds of supporters. After the verdict was announced, they chanted slogans together. They aren’t likely to learn their sentences until at least Wednesday; until then, they are free on bail, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
Speaking in court Tuesday, Chu said, according to the Free Press, “In the Umbrella Movement, I am just a bell toller… In so doing, I hope that consciences may wake up, and together we work to save the day.”
The three main activists founded the Umbrella Movement and planned protests with the goal of flooding roads in a key government district with so many people that Chinese-backed authorities would not have any choice but to pay attention to their demands. They also saw the large public support for their demonstrations as proof that many of Hong Kong’s residents either tolerated or approved of their actions.
But in his ruling, District Judge Johnny Chan said the organizers had been naïve to think they could change Beijing’s mind “with a click of fingers” — and that they were also naïve to think they could easily disperse a protest that quickly grew to tens of thousands of people.
Also found guilty were former student leaders Tommy Cheung Sau-yin and Eason Chung Yiu-wa, along with lawmakers Tanya Chan and Shiu Ka-chun, League of Social Democrats vice chairman Raphael Wong, and former Democratic Party legislator Lee Wing-tat.
In his 268-page ruling, Chan often referenced hours of video footage of the demonstrations and the defendants’ speeches. He cited their words often, including one passage in which he said Tanya Chan “specifically asked [that] supporters going to the venue should equip themselves with umbrellas, bottled water, hats, sunglasses or goggles” to protect themselves from tear gas and other crowd dispersion tools.
Tanya Chan also instructed protesters to “sit in a way that a male protester should sit next to a female [protester] and they should link their arms for the purpose of increasing the cost of the police carrying them away,” he said.
The judge also cited a portion of the video records that showed the defendants urging protesters to plan to work in shifts, and to make supply runs.
Tanya Chan “said she believed the era of disobedience battle had already begun,” he wrote.
In their defense, the activists said they were using the protests as a last resort, in the tradition of using civil disobedience to inspire change. The judge noted that through legal precedents, the concept of civil disobedience is “recognized in Hong Kong.”
But Judge Chan also said, “Even if a defendant is prosecuted for an offence committed in the course of civil disobedience, civil disobedience is not a defense in law.”
Chan disagreed with the defendants over the proportionality of their actions — and the scale of the public inconvenience it caused, in the form of traffic blockages and similar issues.
“The test/yardstick they used was totally wrong,” the judge wrote.
Tuesday’s verdict comes nearly two years after other high-profile members of the movement were sentenced to jail terms, including Joshua Wong, a student activist who was just 17 when he became the face of the protest.