Academic founders of pro-democracy movement convicted

Two academics and a reverend who were the co-founders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement which brought the city to a halt with its largest ever street demonstrations in 2014, have been sentenced for their part in the protests, in what is being seen as a landmark political trial.

University of Hong Kong (HKU) law scholar Benny Tai was convicted on two public nuisance-related charges on Tuesday, while sociology professor Chan Kin-man, who stepped down from his post at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) late last year to concentrate on the trial, was found guilty of two public nuisance charges.

Reverend Chu Yiu-ming was convicted of one charge relating to the 79-day protests which called for universal suffrage in the selection of the city’s chief executive, and an end to Beijing’s advance screening of candidates. However, none of the protesters’ demands were met.

The three founders of the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, which morphed into the much larger student-led Umbrella Movement, were among nine defendants, dubbed the ‘Umbrella 9’, convicted on Tuesday. They include Tommy Cheung, 24 and Eason Chung, 26 – both former presidents of the Chinese University of Hong Kong students’ union and student leaders at the time of the protests – as well as three current lawmakers and activists at the trial. All pleaded not guilty.

The pro-democracy movement was called the Umbrella Movement after an iconic picture of a student holding a yellow umbrella surrounded by tear gas during the height of the protests.

Human rights groups have described the prosecution as politically motivated, criticising the use of vaguely-worded British colonial-era public nuisance laws against peaceful protesters.

“Hong Kong courts, by labelling peaceful protests in pursuit of rights as public nuisance, are sending a terrible message that will likely embolden the government to prosecute more peaceful activists, further chilling free expression in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch.

The court did not immediately announce sentences. The charges each carry a maximum of seven years in prison.

The verdicts come amid new warnings about the future of academic and political freedoms in Hong Kong. The government has also removed from Hong Kong’s partially elected Legislative Council outspoken lawmakers who had taken part in the movement, and issued an unprecedented ban on a pro-independence political party.

Court hearings

In his summary of the judgment on Tuesday, Justice Johnny Chan said civil disobedience was not a defence to a criminal charge. Prosecutors argued that the protests, which shut down parts of the city for weeks, had caused “unreasonable” disruptions to public order for three months.

During the main trial hearings of the Umbrella 9 in December 2018, lawyers argued that the nine defendants had occupied public roads and became an “unreasonable obstruction”.

Prosecutors argued they were guilty of incitement because they had called on the public to join them.

Barrister Gerard McCoy – representing Tai, Chan and Chu – said in court this week that the three men’s motives “can only be described as altruistic and selfless”. He added, the three activists paid the “criminal law price for intellectual and principled beliefs”.

“No matter what happens, I am confident that many of us will continue to strive for democracy. We will persist and will not give up,” Tai said surrounded by supporters after the verdict.

Another of the Umbrella 9, legislator Shiu Ka-chun, a former lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, said in his mitigation letter to the court which he circulated to the media on Tuesday: "I want to warn the authoritarian government, even if you kill all the roosters, you cannot stop the dawn's arrival."

Chu said in a statement “We have no regrets. We have no complaints. We have no anger. We have not given up.”

In November Chan stepped down from CUHK in order to prepare for the trial. After the verdict Chan said: “We are in good spirits because we have no regrets for what we have done.”

Speaking to the media before the verdict hearing this week, Chan said he was willing to go to jail for democracy, and although he had been offered academic posts overseas, he wanted to face trial in Hong Kong for the purpose of historical record.

“I am really worried in the future how the story of the Umbrella Movement will be told,” he said in a wide-ranging podcast in advance of the verdict. “By going to court at least [I can] make an official record in court of how we understand the movement.”

Concern for future freedoms

But he said the future did not augur well for freedom of speech at Hong Kong’s universities. “Some [Hong Kong] scholars with official connections in Beijing, after the Umbrella Movement, believed that the reason why we have this movement is because some elite intellectuals had intoxicated the minds of the young generation for years and so they started to tighten the grip on universities.”

He added that the chilling effect was already being felt on campuses. He referred to cases of political interference such as the case of Johannes Chan, a Hong Kong University law department dean who was rejected for the position of pro-vice-chancellor ostensibly for his close ties to Tai and perceived support of the Umbrella Movement. Chan said: “I just don’t trust the university administration any more.”

Chan said he did not himself experience any political interference while at CUHK, “but now more and more the vice-chancellors are those who have a very close relationship with the [Hong Kong] government and even with Beijing.”

He predicted before this week’s verdict that if Tai is convicted, HKU would set up a disciplinary committee on his case “and then create a reason to sack him”.

More than 250 other democracy activists were prosecuted and more than 100 convicted at two previous trials – these included former student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow. The latter two served as secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.

They were convicted along with 37 other demonstrators in two separate trials held previously.

Law was subsequently elected to the Hong Kong legislature in 2016, at 23 its youngest ever lawmaker, but was controversially disqualified from the legislature over a disputed oath-taking ceremony.