Three leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong have been found guilty of public order charges linked to a mass sit-in that kicked off the 79-day Occupy Central campaign for fully democratic elections.
Former student leaders Joshua Wong and Alex Chow, and legislative election candidate Nathan Law, were found guilty of taking part in an unlawful assembly at the city's Eastern Magistrates Court on Thursday.
All three had pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years' imprisonment. However, presiding judge June Cheung acquitted Wong of a charge of inciting others to take part in the illegal assembly. Law was found guilty of the same charge.
The three activists remained defiant after their bail was extended pending sentencing on Aug. 15.
"Apart from respecting judicial independence and the rule of law, I still disagree with the final result from the court, because I think that everyone should ensure and gain the right to organize and participate in any kind of assembly," Wong told reporters outside the court.
"I think that is the human right of every citizen who lives in Hong Kong."
"We may need to go to prison," he said. "But whatever the penalty or the price we have to pay, we will continue to fight against suppression from the government."
Wong said the fight for democracy under the ruling Chinese Communist Party is "a long-term battle."
Less room for dissent
Law said the case shows that there is less and less room for dissent in Hong Kong, which was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms of speech and assembly for 50 years, under the terms of the1997 handover to China.
"We are not afraid of any repression, and when it gets stronger, we will also get stronger," said Law, who recently tendered his nomination papers to run in September's Legislative Council (LegCo) elections for the fledgling political party Demosisto.
"This case will be a very important case [that shows] the attitude of the Hong Kong government towards peaceful assembly is ... getting tightened, and they will use whatever tools they can to repress people who fight for their rights," he said.
The charges were brought after the three activists climbed into a cordoned-off area in front of city government headquarters, an area known as Civic Square, at the start of the Occupy Central movement in September 2014.
Rights groups hit out at Thursday's verdict, saying it sent a "chilling warning" on freedom of expression in the formerly freewheeling city.
"The prosecution of student leaders on vague charges smacks of political payback by the authorities," Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said in a statement.
"The continued persecution of prominent figures of the Umbrella Movement is a blow to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Hong Kong," she said.
Police handling of the initial protest and the arrests of the student leaders at that time were a crucial factor in tens of thousands of pro-democracy supporters taking to the streets in the days immediately afterwards, the group said.
It hit out at "vague" wording in public order legislation, which has been repeatedly criticized by the UN Human Rights Committee for failing to fully meet international human rights law and standards on the right of peaceful assembly.
"The authorities must stop using vague laws in an attempt to intimidate people from exercising their right to peaceful assembly," Au said. "Prosecutions aimed at shutting down participation in peaceful protests must be dropped."
The group cited police figures showing that more than 1,000 people were arrested in connection with the Occupy Central, or Umbrella, movement, of whom 216 people have been prosecuted,or continue to face charges for their alleged involvement in the protests.
The Occupy movement campaigned for Beijing to withdraw an Aug, 31, 2014 electoral reform plan, which it rejected as "fake universal suffrage," and to allow publicly nominated candidates to run for chief executive in 2017.
The plan, which offered a one-person, one-vote in 2017 elections for chief executive,but required candidates to be vetted by Beijing, was voted down on June 18, 2015 by 28 votes to eight in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, leaving the city with its existing voting arrangements still in place.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.