Three leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong are defending themselves this week against government charges linked to a mass sit-in during a week-long class boycott that kicked off the Occupy Central movement.
Joshua Wong, 19, who heads the academic activist group Scholarism, Alex Chow, 25, former secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and Nathan Law, 22, current leader of the student federation, are on trial for offenses related to the protest.
At the eastern magistrate's court on Monday, Wong and Law pleaded not guilty to charges of inciting others to join an unlawful assembly, and to taking part in an unlawful assembly, local media reported. Chow pleaded not guilty to taking part in an unlawful assembly, according to the reports.
While they face up to five years in prison, Wong told reporters he did not fear for his freedom.
"I'm not scared, because I believe that justice will prevail," he said, adding that it was "unreasonable" for the government to press charges in the first place.
An activist who founded the pressure group Save Hong Kong who watched from the public gallery as the trial continued on Tuesday told RFA's China service the government was trying to intimidate the population.
"They say that they organized an unlawful assembly, but this is all a form of white terror [intimidation]," said the activist who only gave RFA the nickname Ah Ngau. "Civic Square should be a public space. Why did they fence it off in the first place?"
“The square has remained under tight lock and key ever since the Umbrella Movement," he said. "Nobody is allowed in or out."
He said government controls are far more draconian since chief executive Leung Chun-ying took office.
"He is using attitudes left over from the Cultural Revolution to divide Hong Kong," Ah Ngau said, in a reference to the Mao-era political turmoil of 1966-1976. "Leung doesn't listen to public opinion. He just wants to pit Hong Kong people against each other."
The prosecutions could spark more unrest, warned Civic Party youth branch activist Joshua Li.
"I think the authorities' prosecution of the activists would likely lead to more protests in future," Li told RFA."A lot of young people in Hong Kong are likely to have less respect for the government ... and more people are likely to express their dissatisfaction through protests.”
The trial is also capturing attention from outside of Hong Kong as Washington politicians have latched onto the trial as a “bellwhether” for democratic freedoms and true autonomy in Hong Kong.
Republican Senator and candidate for the party’s presidential nomination Marco Rubio expressed concern over the recent developments as did New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith. The two lawmakers chair the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Rubio used the trail and other moves by Beijing to criticize the President Obama’s policy in the region saying in a CECC statement that China’s current “trajectory is troubling and merits greater attention from the Obama Administration.
“These most recent actions call into direct question Beijing’s commitment to the principle of ‘one country, two systems,’” Rubio said. “It is against this backdrop that Joshua’s case goes to trial. We will be watching closely how it is handled.”
Smith cited concerns that Beijing’s expanded influence and reach in Hong Kong are undermining the city's "high degree of autonomy," promised.
What happened that night
The charges relate to the night of Sept. 26, 2014 when a group of protesters climbed a high fence around government headquarters, occupying the area beyond it called Civic Square. About a dozen guards were reportedly injured in the clashes that followed.
According to the prosecution, Scholarism applied for an assembly in a site across the road from government headquarters in Admiralty on Sept. 26, 2014. A permit was granted by police, on condition that the assembly ended at 10 p.m. and with the proviso that participants should not enter the Civic Square on the east side of the government building.
Prosecutors said Wong called on students to join him in entering the square at 10:20 p.m. Soon after, he began running towards Civic Square followed by several other protesters soon after speaking, according to police video footage shown to the court.
Law was accused of similarly urging protesters to surround government headquarters, after he was filmed snatching up a microphone from Wong.
Lawyers defending the trio argued that the police officers' statements appeared to have been copied from each other. Officials deny the accusation.
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 Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.