HONG KONG — A court found nine leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy movement guilty Tuesday of charges including conspiracy and inciting a public nuisance, sparking outrage from supporters and human rights groups.
The convictions were the last of dozens resulting from protests almost five years ago to call for greater democracy in Hong Kong. The protests shut down parts of the city and lasted 79 days. Prosecutors said the nine had encouraged demonstrators to block major roads and cause obstructions in a bid to achieve their political demands.
The nine activists, however, have argued that police and government actions prompted hundreds of thousands of people to protest, lengthening what was designed as a short and limited sit-in.
The protests, known as the “Umbrella Movement” for the only tool demonstrators had to defend themselves against police pepper spray and tear gas, aimed to move Hong Kong away from Beijing’s grip. Protesters hoped to extend democratic rights and end plans for China to vet candidates for the city’s top political job.
When Beijing held firm and police began to use tear gas, the sit-in turned into a swelling movement. An estimated 1.2 million people took to the streets in an overwhelmingly peaceful manner, shutting down major roadways and camping out in crowded districts.
The convictions come at a time when countries including the United States and Britain have decried what they see as Beijing’s meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs. In a statement, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the Chinese government has “increased its interference in Hong Kong affairs, and the Hong Kong government has been complicit in actively suppressing political participation and speech” since the 2014 protests.
“The past year has been particularly troubling, as Hong Kong’s autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework — on which U.S.-Hong Kong relations depend — continues to be eroded,” they said.
Amnesty International called the verdicts a “crushing blow for freedom of expression and peaceful protest” using “vague charges.”
The movement had no official leaders, but the nine sentenced Tuesday — who include a sitting lawmaker, a legal scholar and a retired pastor — have been accused by Hong Kong prosecutors of being primarily responsible for the disruption. Among them are three co-founders of a campaign called “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” which advocated for nonviolent civil disobedience to bring about political change.
They were among the few activists involved with the 2014 protests to be charged specifically with inciting a public nuisance.
“The purpose of civil disobedience is not to obstruct the public, but to arouse public concern to the injustice in society,” Benny Tai, one the three co-founders and among the nine sentenced Tuesday, said in his closing submission.
“This case is about some Hong Kong people who love Hong Kong very much and believe that only through the introduction of genuine universal suffrage could a door be opened to resolving the deep-seated conflicts in Hong Kong,” added Tai, a professor.
On Tuesday, ahead of the verdict, more than 100 supporters gathered around the court and erupted in chants demanding universal suffrage. The defendants said they had no regrets, as supporters held yellow banners behind them, a nod to the color of the movement.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists want the chief executive, Hong Kong’s top political office, to be directly elected. The chief executive is currently chosen from a committee designed to represent different constituencies in Hong Kong, but only after passing a strict nomination process that critics say is effectively controlled by Beijing.
The former British colony was handed back to China in 1997. Under Beijing’s policy of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong’s economic and political systems — as well as its judiciary — are supposed to remain distinct from mainland China for 50 years following the handover, until 2047.
Kong Tsung-gan, a writer and activist tracking the aftermath of the demonstrations, has calculated that 266 demonstrators were prosecuted and more than 100 were convicted.
Activists argue that Tuesday’s guilty verdict, handed down after a lengthy trial that was delayed multiple times, will have a broader chilling effect on free expression in Hong Kong. Speaking in a podcast issued Sunday, Chan Kin-man, one of the nine convicted Tuesday, said students now have difficulty organizing student councils for fear of being blacklisted.
Others, he added, fear “economic sanctions,” such as when advertisers pull out of pro-democracy newspapers to effectively silence them.
“It’s too costly for many,” Chan said.