A court in Hong Kong has found nine pro-democracy activists accused of "inciting" the 2014 Occupy Central movement guilty of public order charges.
The District Court found all nine defendants, who include movement initiators Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man, and the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming, guilty of causing a "public nuisance" by encouraging the protests.
The nine defendants, who also include barrister and lawmaker Tanya Chan, former lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, and democracy activists Eason Chung, Raphael Wong, and Tommy Cheung, had all pleaded "not guilty" of the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment.
Tai, retired sociology professor Chan Kin-man and Rev. Chu Yiu-ming were all found guilty of "conspiracy to cause a public nuisance," while Tai and Chan were also found guilty of "inciting others to cause a public nuisance" alongside Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan, social welfare lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun, former lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, and activists Tommy Cheung, Raphael Wong, and Eason Chung.
Wong, Tanya Chan, and Shiu were also found guilty of "inciting people to incite others to cause a public nuisance."
In a 267-page judgment, District Court judge Johnny Chan dismissed the defendants' use of civil disobedience as a defense against criminal charges.
"The obstruction caused to the roads as a result of the launch of the Occupy Central movement on 28th September 2014 [is] unreasonable and hence unwarranted by the law," Chan found.
Chan also ruled that the public nuisance charges “do not give rise to any chilling effect on the exercise of the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly," and denied that the verdict would effectively suppress Hong Kong people's human rights.
He said that Tai, Chan Kin-man, and Chu knew that the Occupy movement would cause "excessive inconvenience" to the general public, which disproportionately affected the rights of others.
'No anger, no regrets'
Rev. Chu made a statement from the dock after the verdict, including a declaration from himself, Tai, and Chan Kin-man.
"We do not repent," Chu said. "We hold no grudges, no anger, and no regrets."
He added: "We have never given up."
Chan Kin-man said serving jail time was the least of the three men's worries.
"The thing we care about the most is how this movement is regarded by the whole of society," Chan told reporters. "I feel calm, because I still believe in the power of peace and love."
The nascent political party Demosisto, founded by student leaders of Occupy Central movement, said it was "appalled" by the verdict.
"We believe in the right to peaceful assembly, and to aspirations for a better, more democratic society," the party said in a statement posted to Joshua Wong's Facebook page.
"The verdict today creates a chilling effect in Hong Kong society. It will be increasingly difficult for anyone to express their opinions and to disagree with the government," it said.
"Five years ago, the Umbrella Movement was a light that brought together parts of the fragmented society, it is a shame that today’s verdict and political prosecution seeks to go the opposite direction and tear apart Hong Kong society, suppressing any and all opposing voices," it said.
The group said Hong Kong's colonial-era Public Order Ordinance is an illiberal law that can interfere with people's civil and political rights under international treaties, citing concerns raised about the law by the United Nations as early as 2013.
Meanwhile, former colonial governor Chris Patten, now Lord Patten of Barnes, said the decision was "appallingly divisive."
"At a time when most people would have thought that the aim of the Hong Kong Government should be to bring the whole community together it seems appallingly divisive to use anachronistic common law charges in a vengeful pursuit of political events which took place in 2014," Patten wrote on the website of the rights group Hong Kong Watch.
His comments were echoed by Gyde Jensen, chair of the German Bundestag Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid.
"It is alarming that human rights activists and pro-democracy leaders are increasingly at risk in Hong Kong," Jensen said in a statement. "We cannot accept that protestors are intimidated when they exercise their right to freedom of expression and to peaceful demonstration."
In Washington, the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) also hit out at the verdict, linking it to growing interference in the political life of Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, and the erosion of its promised autonomy during the past year.
"Since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the Communist Chinese Government has increased its interference in Hong Kong’s affairs and the Hong Kong government has been complicit in actively suppressing political participation and speech," the CECC said in a statement on its website.
"The charges and sentences against the ‘Umbrella Nine’ effectively punish peaceful political dissent and narrow the space for free expression and peaceful assembly," the statement said.
"We urge the Hong Kong government to vigorously defend the rule of law and the freedoms on which Hong Kong’s many economic successes have been built."
Protests calling for universal suffrage grew out of a week-long student strike following an Aug. 31, 2014 ruling from China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee insisting on the vetting of electoral candidates if universal suffrage was to go ahead.
The ruling was also rejected by pan-democratic lawmakers as "fake universal suffrage."
In June 2014, an unofficial referendum saw 400,000 people vote in favor of universal suffrage and unrestricted nominations, in spite of a central government white paper spelling out that the city's autonomy was still subject to the will of Beijing, and didn't constitute full autonomy or decentralized power.
Protesters broke through into the shuttered-off Civic Square outside government headquarters on Sept. 27, bringing thousands of protesters onto the streets of nearby Admiralty.
Public anger soared when police used tear gas, batons, and pepper spray against unarmed protesters on Sept. 28, bringing hundreds of thousands of people onto the city's streets at its height, many of them calling for fully democratic elections.
U.S. and UK officials have warned repeatedly that growing political interference from Beijing is eroding the city's promised autonomy, known as the "one country, two systems" framework, under which Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997.
The cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers, and the barring of six directly elected pro-democracy lawmakers after Beijing intervened to rule their oaths of allegiance invalid, have also thrown up doubts about the city's judicial independence.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and Lu Xi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.