Prison looms for convicted Hong Kong democracy leaders

Hong Kong (AFP) –


A group of Hong Kong activists will be sentenced Wednesday after being convicted this month on "public nuisance" charges for their role in organising mass pro-democracy protests that paralysed the city for months and infuriated Beijing.

The likely jail terms followed convictions that have renewed alarm over shrinking freedoms under an assertive China which has rejected demands by Hong Kongers asking for a greater say in how the financial hub is run.

Nine activists were all found guilty earlier in April of at least one charge in a prosecution that deployed rarely-used colonial-era public nuisance laws over their participation in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, which called for free elections for the city's leader.

It is the latest blow to the beleaguered pro-democracy camp which has seen key figures jailed or banned from standing as legislators since their civil disobedience movement shook the city but failed to win any concessions.

The charges carry steep jail terms of up to seven years and a court is expected to hand down sentences Wednesday.

Among the most prominent members of the group on trial are sociology professor Chan Kin-man, 60, law professor Benny Tai, 54, and Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, 75.

The trio founded a civil disobedience campaign known as "Occupy Central" in 2013. Their original idea of taking to the streets to demand a fairer system was a precursor to the student-led Umbrella Movement a year later which brought parts of the city to a standstill for over two months.

All three were found guilty of conspiracy to commit public nuisance. Tai and Chan were also convicted of incitement to commit public nuisance although all three were acquitted of incitement to incite public nuisance.

Of the remaining six defendants -- a group of younger protest leaders, including two sitting lawmakers -- all were convicted of at least one public nuisance charge.

- 'Appallingly divisive' -

Judge Johnny Chan ruled that the 2014 protests, which took over key intersections for many weeks, were not protected by Hong Kong's free speech laws because the demonstrations impinged on the rights of others.

"The unreasonableness of the obstruction was such that the significant and protected right to demonstrate should be displaced," he said. "The act was one not warranted by law."

After the ruling, Reverend Chu, the oldest defendant, delivered a statement from the dock warning Hong Kong's leadership against ignoring youth-led calls for greater democratic freedoms.

"The bell tolls. It gives out a warning sound, that something bad and disastrous is happening," he said.

In a submission sent to journalists fellow defendant Shiu Ka-chun added: "I want to warn the authoritarian government, even if you kill all the roosters, you cannot stop the dawn's arrival."

Human rights groups and critics have hit out at the convictions, saying the use of the vaguely worded public nuisance laws -- and wielding the steeper common law punishment -- would have a chilling effect on free speech in Hong Kong.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said it was "appallingly divisive to use anachronistic common law charges in a vengeful pursuit of political events which took place in 2014."

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang fired back at those criticisms, saying other countries would also have brought such a prosecution to "maintain order".

"The central government resolutely supports (Hong Kong) in punishing the main organisations and planners of the illegal Occupy Central movement in accordance with the law," he told reporters.

In his verdict Judge Chan denied his ruling would impact the ability of Hong Kongers to protest.

Hong Kong enjoys rights unseen on the Chinese mainland, which are protected by the 50-year handover agreement between Britain and China, but fears are growing that those liberties are being eroded as Beijing flexes its muscles.