Hong Kong Moves Ahead With Trial of Nine Pro-Democracy Protesters

2017-05-25
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The nine pro-democracy protesters facing public order charges linked to the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, May 25, 2017.
The nine pro-democracy protesters facing public order charges linked to the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, May 25, 2017.
Photo courtesy of Lin Guoli

Nine prominent figures of Hong Kong's 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement warned of possible violations of their civil rights as their trial date was set for June 15, more than two years after the event.

The former protest leaders will face charges of incitement to public disorder, conspiracy to create a public nuisance, and other public order offenses.

Amid shouts of "Citizens protest!" and "We are not afraid!", the three initiators of the 79-day civil disobedience movement—professors Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, and reverend Chu Yiu-ming—said they are still deciding how to plead in a case which could have "constitutional implications."

"We are going to consider if we are going to plead guilty or not in the coming trial," Chan told journalists in Hong Kong on Thursday. "We need to consider ... whether the evidence provided by the authorities is factual, and secondly ... whether the charges are appropriate."

Chan said the group, which faces public order charges, would be unlikely to plead guilty to anything more serious, such as inciting violence.

"The third point is about the constitutional implications of this court case," Chan said. "If they use our articles and speeches ... as evidence against us, and are successful, then it will certainly damage our freedom of expression and other civil rights."

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 many say those freedoms are rapidly being eroded, and the charges against peaceful demonstrators have sparked fears of a politicized "purge" aimed at discouraging further popular protests.

Former student federation leaders Tommy Cheung and Eason Chung, former Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, League of Social Democrats vice-chairman Raphael Wong, and lawmakers Tanya Chan and Shiu Ka-chun are also facing trial in June.

Shiu Ka-chun said the nine are willing to "take responsibility" for their actions, however.

"The Occupy Central movement has now entered a new phase, that of judicial struggle," Shiu told reporters. "We will own up to some of these charges, but we won't plead guilty to some, which are unreasonable."

"If we were to plead guilty to those, then that would have a negative impact on any future popular protest movement carried out by the people of Hong Kong," he said.

Tommy Cheung said the group wouldn't allow the charges to hamper their ongoing campaign for fully democratic elections in Hong Kong.

"I hope that everyone will stand up for Hong Kong, and work to protect everything that we have," Cheung said. "[We will] continue together on the road to democracy."

Universal suffrage

The Occupy Central, or Umbrella, Movement for fully democratic elections rejected Beijing's insistence that any move to universal suffrage in the city must include the vetting of candidates by its supporters, and called for "real universal suffrage."

At its height, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the city's streets in protest, using umbrellas to protect themselves from sun, rain, and pepper spray, and giving the Umbrella Movement its nickname.

But the movement ended with no political victory, and amid accusations from the ruling Chinese Communist Party that the protests were being orchestrated by "hostile foreign forces" behind the scenes.

Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat hit out at the timing of the trial on Thursday, accusing the government of using an unfair advantage.

"The government has had nearly two years to collate evidence and to prepare all of the documents from its investigations," Lee said. "Our lawyers received a document of 1,200 pages and seven inches thick only last week."

"This is in itself a form of injustice and not at all even-handed."

The fresh charges come after student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow were found guilty of public order offenses last July for their role in the occupation of a cordoned-off public space at the start of the movement.

Wong and Chow were convicted of "unlawful assembly" after they climbed into the fenced-off area outside government headquarters on the night of Sept. 26, 2014, at the start of a 79-day civil disobedience campaign for universal suffrage.

They were handed suspended and community service sentences that were later challenged by prosecutors in the former British colony.

Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Ding Wenqi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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