HK's democracy leaders defiant as landmark trial wraps up

Pro-democracry activists, including (from second from left) Baptist minister Chu Yiu Ming, 74, law professor Benny Tai and sociology professor Chan Kin Man, 59, chanting before entering a Hong Kong court last month. Nine defendants face up to seven years
Pro-democracry activists, including (from second from left) Baptist minister Chu Yiu Ming, 74, law professor Benny Tai and sociology professor Chan Kin Man, 59, chanting before entering a Hong Kong court last month. Nine defendants face up to seven years in jail for charges that include conspiracy to commit public nuisance and incitement to commit public nuisance. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HONG KONG • Hong Kong democracy leaders pledged yesterday to sustain their fight for full democracy at the end of a month-long trial that could see them jailed for leading and inciting protests against what they see as Beijing's unjust curbs on freedom.

The nine defendants face a maximum of seven years in jail for various charges that include conspiracy to commit public nuisance and incitement to commit public nuisance. They all pleaded not guilty.

A verdict is expected on April 9 next year.

Prosecutors say they were the instigators of the 79-day Occupy Central protests in late 2014 which drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets, hoping to press Beijing to grant full democracy in the global financial hub.

''Only through the introduction of genuine universal suffrage could a door be opened to resolving the deep-seated conflicts in Hong Kong,'' one of the nine defendants, law professor Benny Tai, 54, told the court. ''The price of freedom is indeed eternal vigilance.''

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a ''one country, two systems'' formula, with the promise of a high degree of autonomy and universal suffrage as an ''ultimate aim''.

Critics, however, including foreign governments and business groups, say the guarantee is ringing increasingly hollow, with a democratic reform process now largely stalled.

The trial is the latest in a series against Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition that has seen scores of activists jailed.

Activists say Hong Kong's freedoms have come under increasing strain. They point to the recent expulsion of a British journalist and various steps to shut out the city's democratic opposition from politics.

Hong Kong's government says it is trying to push for political reform. But it says it will not tolerate any talk of moves towards independence from China.

REUTERS