Nine prominent figures in Hong Kong's 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement began making the case for their defense on Thursday in their controversial trial on public order charges.
A group of supporters gathered outside West Kowloon Magistrate’s Court, chanting: "Occupy Central is innocent!" "Shame on political prosecutions!" and "Peaceful protest is legitimate!"
The three activists who initiated the movement—law professor Benny Tai, retired sociology professor Chan Kin-man, and reverend Chu Yiu-ming—face one count each of conspiracy to cause public nuisance, inciting others to cause public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance.
Former student federation leaders Tommy Cheung and Eason Chung, League of Social Democrats vice-chairman Raphael Wong, and lawmakers Tanya Chan and Shiu Ka-chun face two counts of inciting others to cause a public nuisance, while former Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat faces one count.
Chan Kin-man, who conducted his own defense, said the chief purpose of the Occupy Central movement was to campaign for fully democratic elections using civil disobedience tactics.
"Civil disobedience doesn't just mean the occupation of a place; it also means that participants expect to make sacrifices to make society pay attention to injustice," he told the court.
Asked why he didn't plead guilty, Chan Kin-man said he felt that some of the charges were unreasonable, and that any conviction would have "a profound impact" on waning freedom of speech in the city.
He said he, Tai, and Chu had carried out an unofficial referendum with 792,000 voters taking part, the majority of whom support universal, direct elections to Hong Kong's Legislative Council, and for its chief executive.
He said the trio had repeatedly sought meetings with high-ranking government officials, but weren't offered any meaningful dialogue when the meeting finally took place, with chief executive Carrie Lam merely urging them not to proceed with the Occupy Central movement.
Chan said that when the trio showed the officials their data in support of universal suffrage, the then-undersecretary for constitutional affairs, Lau Kong-wah, repeatedly told them they were too radical.
No further meetings were arranged, and the officials left the handouts prepared for them in the meeting room.
Later, an Aug. 31, 2014 ruling from China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee insisting on the vetting of electoral candidates led the trio to believe that the path to dialogue was now closed.
At that point, they decided to move ahead with the occupation of a pedestrian area in the Central business district. But the "storming" of Civic Square outside government headquarters on Sept. 27 brought thousands of protesters onto the streets of nearby Admiralty, and Chan then announced the start of the movement the following day, he said.
Chan’s lawyer told the court that he will play an hour’s worth of video footage on Friday which has never been seen publicly before, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
The prosecution had told the court that the actions of the seven were "unreasonable," and accused them of repeatedly calling on protesters to shut down parts of the central Admiralty district, where key government buildings are located, by blocking traffic with “illegal” sit-ins.
Prosecutors accused Tai, Chan, and Chu of initiating the civil disobedience movement at a news conference in March 2013, as a way of achieving fully democratic elections, and of encouraging large numbers of people to take part.
All nine pleaded not guilty to the charges, which were based largely on evidence of their statements made to the media at the time.
British MPs have condemned the use of criminal charges to intimidate and silence pro-democracy figures, noting that more than 100 pro-democracy protesters have been charged, and many jailed, on the basis of common law charges which curtail freedom of expression and have been criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms of speech and association by a mini-constitution drafted by U.K. and Chinese officials ahead of the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
But those freedoms are now being eroded in the wake of repeated interventions in the city’s political life by Beijing, according to overseas governments and human rights organizations.
The trial comes after student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow were found guilty of public order offenses in July 2017 for their role in the occupation of a cordoned-off public space at the start of the movement.
Reported by Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Jing Yuan and Hwang Chun-mei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.