Pro-democracy leaders in court over 2014 mass rallies in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy activists rally outside the West Kowloon Law Courts before a pre-trial hearing in Hong Kong on Jan 9, 2018.
Pro-democracy activists rally outside the West Kowloon Law Courts before a pre-trial hearing in Hong Kong on Jan 9, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Founders of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement that sparked mass rallies in 2014 appeared in court on Tuesday (Jan 9) in the latest case brought against activists.

The nine defendants face public nuisance charges related to the Umbrella Movement demonstrations, which shut down several major roads in the semi-autonomous Chinese city for 79 days.

Hong Kong's government has brought a raft of protest-related cases against democracy campaigners in the past few months. Supporters of the activists see them as political prosecutions under pressure from an increasingly assertive China.

The most high-profile case so far saw the jailing of leading student activists including Joshua Wong.

The founders of the protest campaign known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace, Mr Benny Tai, Mr Chan Kin Man and Reverend Chu Yiu Ming, were among the nine who appeared on Tuesday.

Their campaign galvanised momentum behind the idea of a mass protest in the heart of Hong Kong to put pressure on Beijing and the local government to introduce democratic reforms.

After student groups joined the campaign and police fired tear gas to disperse protesters, it exploded into the Umbrella Movement.

Defence lawyers at a pre-trial review on Tuesday questioned why the three Occupy founders faced separate charges of conspiracy to commit public nuisance, incitement to commit public nuisance and incitement to incite public nuisance.

Lawyer Gerard McCoy told the court it was "prosecution overload... unnecessarily and artificially bringing charges to increase pressure on the defendants".

He said a more appropriate charge would be unauthorised assembly, which carries a lesser sentence. Public nuisance charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years.

The other six defendants, including serving pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan, face either one or two public nuisance charges.

Prosecutor David Leung said the offences were "separate and distinct" and the prosecution would not change its position.

Other leading pro-democracy campaigners were in the packed court to support the defendants.

Dozens of supporters outside shouted, "Shame on political prosecution!" and "The Umbrella Movement is innocent!"

Lawmaker Chan said she had confidence in the judicial system.

"I hope we are going to have a fair trial today and in the future," she told reporters. "God bless judicial independence and the rule of law."

The hearing continues Wednesday.