BEIJING — A Hong Kong court sentenced leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central protests to prison on Wednesday, five years after hundreds of thousands of residents poured into the streets in one of the most significant displays of defiance against the Chinese Communist Party in decades.
A court sentenced two professors who founded the movement, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, to 16 months imprisonment on public nuisance charges. A third founder, the 75-year old pastor Chu Yiu-ming, also received 16-months but will not serve time in jail because of his age and contributions to society, the court said.
The protracted cases of the Occupy leaders — who led chants with their fists held aloft before their sentencing hearing on Wednesday — were a reminder of how a stubborn pro-democracy movement in the former British territory continues to pose a challenge for the Chinese government despite years-long efforts by Beijing and local authorities to bring them to heel.
Tai, Chan and Chu formed the “Occupy Central With Love and Peace” movement in late 2013 that called for direct elections to choose a Hong Kong leader, free of interference from the central Chinese government. After unsuccessful negotiations with local authorities, the movement evolved into demonstrations and sit-ins that paralyzed the financial hub’s business districts for more than two months.
The protest became known as the “Umbrella Movement” after photos of protesters holding bright yellow umbrellas amid a thick shroud of tear gas became widely recognized symbols of civil disobedience.
Hong Kong prosecutors argued in December that local authorities did not seek to stifle political speech, but the occupation amounted to an “unreasonable obstruction” of civic life. At Wednesday’s sentencing, Judge Johnny Chan said none of the defendants expressed any remorse for the “inconvenience or sufferings experienced by the public,” the Hong Kong Free Press reported.
“It is an apology the public rightly deserves from the defendants but was never received,” the Free Press reported Chan as saying.
The protest leaders and their supporters have argued that demonstrators planned to occupy the streets for only two or three days but dug in after police fired tear gas at them. Rights groups condemned the sentence on Wednesday, noting that it was the first time the government has leveled public nuisance charges against peaceful protesters.
“The vindictive use of these vague and ambiguous charges by the Hong Kong government sets a dangerous precedent that could lead to the blanket persecution and imprisonment of peaceful protesters,” said Man-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong. “The government must stop abusing the law and the judicial system to silence debate on democracy in Hong Kong.”
Scores of supporters holding yellow umbrellas appeared Wednesday outside the court chanting their demands for universal suffrage. Others held signs that hailed the sentenced leaders as fearless heroes.
All told, eight protest figures were sentenced to either jail or community service. The ninth person convicted, the sitting lawmaker Tanya Chan, had her sentencing pushed back because she was scheduled to have emergency surgery for a brain tumor.
China’s leaders pledged semi-autonomy to Hong Kong under a “one-country, two systems” agreement as part of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain in 1997. Two decades on, local activists, international rights groups, Western diplomats and the foreign business community in Hong Kong broadly say that Beijing has backtracked on its promises by preselecting candidates for Hong Kong office, curtailing speech and media freedoms, and outright abducting political dissidents.
Three student leaders of Occupy Central were sentenced to between six and eight months in 2017, although their sentences were later overturned.
In unprecedented moves, the Hong Kong government last year banned a political party that advocated for Hong Kong independence and expelled a British journalist who had hosted the leader of the party for a lecture.
Since rising to power, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has sought to cultivate a sense of Chinese identity among Hong Kong’s residents and nip a growing popular movement that rejects Chinese rule.
In key speeches, Xi has asserted that Beijing maintains “comprehensive jurisdiction” over political matters in Hong Kong. But the tough stance by Xi and other Communist Party officials has deepened the divide with Hong Kong’s restive campaigners.