A court in Hong Kong has handed down jail terms to four pro-democracy activists accused of "inciting" the 2014 Occupy Central movement, after finding them guilty of public order charges earlier this month.
Movement co-founders Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man were both sentenced to 16 months' imprisonment by the West Kowloon District Court on Wednesday for "conspiracy to cause a public nuisance," while fellow movement leader Chu Yiu-ming, 75, was given a suspended prison term, owing to his age and poor health.
Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, and retired sociology professor Chan were also found guilty of "inciting others to cause a public nuisance" alongside Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan, whose sentence was postponed to June 10 following her diagnosis with a brain tumor.
Social welfare lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun and League of Social Democrats activist Raphael Wong were both jailed for eight months.
Former lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, and activist Eason Chung were handed eight-month jail terms suspended for two years, while activist Tommy Cheung was sentenced to 200 hours of community service.
Judge Johnny Chan told the court that custodial terms were "the only appropriate punishments" for the four who were jailed, to reflect the "seriousness" of the offenses. But he said he had taken into consideration that the defendants weren't motivated by greed, anger or money, nor had they used violence.
All defendants had pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.
Chu broke down in tears when talking to journalists outside the court, following the sentencing hearing.
"Ever since I, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man initiated the Occupy Central with Peace and Love movement in 2013, we three have been together," he said. "Today, they were sent to prison, and I am devastated."
"I just want to be with them. We have never been apart these past five years," he said.
"What I worry about most is their life in there, and their families," he said, adding: "I will do my utmost to show them support, give them consolation ... and encouragement."
Tanya Chan told reporters that scans had revealed a large tumor pressing on her brain stem, and that she is scheduled for surgery on Thursday.
"Don't worry about me; I will do everything I can to get better, so I can carry on the fight for democracy," she said.
Former Occupy student leader Joshua Wong, who is now secretary-general of the nascent political party Demosisto, hit out at the sentencing.
"These were ... non-violent protests, but the government is using public order laws to bring charges," Wong said. "I am very disappointed."
"There is a real problem with this outdated colonial law."
The sentences came after Judge Chan said the use of civil disobedience for political ends didn't amount to a valid defense.
"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 wrote in his judgment.
He said the three founders knew that the Occupy movement would cause "excessive inconvenience" to the general public, which disproportionately affected the rights of others.
But activists gathering in a vigil outside the Lai Chi Kok Detention Centre, where the four jailed activists are being held, left stickers which said simply: "I was not incited."
Demosisto, founded by student leaders of Occupy Central movement, said the sentences represented yet another blow to Hong Kong's promised autonomy.
"We acknowledge the sentencing with heavy hearts, and our condolences go out to the leaders and their close ones," the group said in a statement on its Facebook page."
"If one is to trace back to the cause of the Umbrella Movement, then it would undeniably be the Chinese government’s move to block Hong Kong’s road to democracy, and the Hong Kong government’s mobilisation of the police and subsequent [use] of tear gas against unarmed citizens," Demosisto said. "The Court will not be able to convict these true culprits of nuisance and incitement."
Demosisto has previously said that Hong Kong's colonial-era Public Order Ordinance is an illiberal law that interferes with people's civil and political rights under international treaties, citing concerns raised about the law by the United Nations as early as 2013.
In Taiwan, rights groups condemned the sentences, saying that they showed that Beijing's promises that Hong Kong would retain its traditional freedoms under the "one country, two systems" framework were false.
"This has historical significance in the democratic movement in East Asia," Eeling Chiu, head of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, said in a statement.
Chiu said the sentences contravened Article 27 of the city's Basic Law, which enshrines the civil and political rights of citizens based on international covenants.
"Article 27 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong stipulates people's right to gather and march," she said. "With these sentences, the Hong Kong courts have turned peaceful assembly into a crime."
"It highlights the fact that Hong Kong's judicial independence is a thing of the past," Chiu said. "The one country, two systems framework promised by the Chinese government has long been a lie."
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said the court’s decision showed the failure of “one country, two systems” to protect political rights.
The U.S. consulate said in a statement it was concerned by the prosecution of the Occupy movement founders.
“Such prosecutions can stifle the exercise of the basic freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law,” said a U.S. consular spokesman. Meanwhile, a British consular official said it would "deeply concerning" if the sentences had a chilling effect on future peaceful protests.
Call for suffrage
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 U.K. 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 Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and Gao Feng and Hwang Chun-mei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.