HONG KONG • A Hong Kong court yesterday jailed four leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy protests, amid heightened concerns over the decline of freedoms in the China-ruled city nearly five years after activists took to the streets in mass protests.
The sentencing of eight of the nine activists followed a near month-long trial that was closely watched as China's Communist Party leaders have put Hong Kong's autonomy under increasing strain, stoking concern among foreign governments, rights groups and the business community.
Law professor Benny Tai and retired sociologist Chan Kin Man were both jailed for 16 months each for conspiracy to commit public nuisance tied to the protests that paralysed parts of the Asian financial hub for 79 days in late 2014 and became known as the Umbrella Movement.
Their sentences had been reduced by two months each given their clean criminal records and positive character, Justice Johnny Chan said.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Shiu Ka Chun and activist Raphael Wong were both jailed for eight months each for inciting public nuisance.
"We maintain our determination to achieve universal suffrage ... this won't change," Wong shouted out in court as he was taken away.
Since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, critics say, Beijing has reneged on a commitment to maintain Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and freedoms under a "one country, two systems" arrangement.
WON'T AFFECT DETERMINATION
We maintain our determination to achieve universal suffrage ... this won't change.
ACTIVIST RAPHAEL WONG, jailed for eight months for inciting public nuisance.
The protesters had demanded that the Communist Party leaders allow genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong to select its leader. Police cleared the demonstrators in December 2014, and the authorities granted no democratic concessions.
Justice Chan, in passing sentence, acknowledged the right to civil disobedience and the right of assembly and free speech, but said the protracted road blockages had caused suffering to the public and that some restrictions on freedoms were necessary in a democratic society.
Retired pastor Chu Yiu Ming, 75, received a suspended sentence, as did veteran democrat Lee Wing Tat and former student leader Eason Chung, with the judge taking into account their ages, public service and clean records.
Another former student leader, Tommy Cheung, was ordered to carry out 200 hours of community service. Tanya Chan, a lawmaker, had her sentencing postponed until June 10 on medical grounds.
Several hundred supporters, many wearing yellow bands and holding yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the protests, gathered outside the West Kowloon Law Courts yesterday. Some sobbed after the sentences were announced while others chanted demands for genuine democracy.
The trial was considered the most significant legal manoeuvre by the authorities to punish those involved in the 2014 protests, called Occupy Central, in reference to the city's central business district. The demonstrations were Hong Kong's biggest and most protracted in recent decades and one of the boldest challenges to China's leaders since pro-democracy protests in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Organisers estimated that more than one million people took part in the protests over nearly three months.
Critics fear several laws, expected to be passed this year, could further erode legal protections.
All nine had argued that the protests were intended as peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience, only to benefit society and make positive democratic progress.
But Justice Chan said their "martyrdom ... was a concocted one", noting that the price the defendants were prepared to pay had also to be borne by an inconvenienced public.
Occupy Central facts
HONG KONG • Occupy Central is the name given to the pro-tests that paralysed parts of Hong Kong for 79 days in 2014.
Demonstrators demanding that China's Communist Party leaders allow genuine universal suffrage in the China-ruled city blocked roads in three important districts - Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok - drawing more than a million people, organisers estimated.
Here are the key facts about the protests and the trial.
• The so-called Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign was first suggested in 2013 by Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
• Chan Kin Man, a former professor, and retired pastor Chu Yiu Ming helped Tai promote the campaign to occupy parts of the business district, should Beijing not allow universal suffrage in an election to select the city's leader.
• Hong Kong's mini-Constitution, the Basic Law, states that both Hong Kong's leader and its legislature be elected by universal suffrage.
• The Standing Committee of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, declared on Aug 31, 2014, that any candidate to be Hong Kong's leader would have to get majority backing from an election committee stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists. It also imposed conditions that some in the city's opposition deemed "fake, China-style democracy".
• The nomination conditions effectively made it impossible for opposition figures to get on the ballot and proved a trigger for the 2014 protests, also known as the Umbrella Movement, as protesters used umbrellas to fend off police pepper spray, tear gas and batons.
• Nine defendants were involved in the landmark public nuisance trial, the most explicit attempt by the authorities to punish instigators of the protests.
• Besides the "Occupy" trio of Tai, Chan and Chu, the other six were lawmakers Tanya Chan and Shiu Ka Chun; two former student leaders, Eason Chung and Tommy Cheung; activist Raphael Wong; and veteran democrat Lee Wing Tat.
• Others are involved in cases on charges including unlawful assembly and contempt of court.
• Police forcibly cleared the protesters in December 2014.
• The authorities granted no democratic concessions.