The three founders of Hong Kong’s huge pro-democracy movement of 2014 appeared in court on Monday, where prosecutors accused them of mobilising an illegal demonstration to force local authorities to respond to their political demands.
Prosecutor Andrew Bruce SC, who opened the case with a speech at West Kowloon Court, said the three were joined by six other key protesters when organising various unlawful sit-ins – better known as the Occupy movement – at the heart of the city in late September that year.
The three founders were academics Benny Tai Yiu-ting, 54, and Dr Chan Kin-man, 59, as well as Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, 74, who denied three joint counts: one of conspiracy to cause public nuisance; one of inciting others to cause public nuisance; and one of inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance.
The six others included legislators Tanya Chan, 47, and Shiu Ka-chun, 49, former student leaders Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, 24, and Eason Chung Yiu-wah, 26, and Raphael Wong Ho-ming, 30, vice-chairman of the League of Social Democrats, all of whom faced – and denied – the two incitement charges.
Former Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, 63, denied one count of incitement to commit public nuisance.
The charges arose from the 79-day protests sparked by a rigid political reform framework announced by Beijing the previous month. Beijing’s proposal did not grant Hong Kong open nominations in elections for the city’s leader, which the protesters had demanded.
As a result of the demonstrations, three major thoroughfares between Wan Chai and Central were brought to a standstill, Bruce said.
“A common injury would be done to the public or at least a significant section of the public if those major thoroughfares were unreasonably obstructed for demonstration,” he said, describing how the demonstrations caused buses and ambulances to be diverted.
The room was packed with journalists and supporters of the defendants. The case was also live-streamed outside court.
The prosecutor then said the three founders’ roles dated all the way back to March 2013, when they started talking in a press conference about the movement they called Occupying Central With Love and Peace.
From then until September 2014, he said, the trio openly discussed the campaign on various occasions, and urged people to take part when the time came.
He said the trio clearly intended the occupation to cause public obstruction, in an attempt to advocate their form of universal suffrage.
“The choice of the location of Central was calculated to make an impact by creating an unreasonable obstruction in the centre of the city, thereby forcing the authorities to respond to their demands,” Bruce added.
The prosecutors then played a string of news clips showing the trio discussing the Occupy movement in 2013 with the press and on a radio show. In the clips, Tai called for others to join the movement and said if the authorities failed to meet people’s demands for democracy, they would carry out the occupations.
But Chan said this should not amount to obstruction as they told protesters not to fight back when police removed them. “The easiest way to deal with us is to arrest us and send us all to jail,” he added.
Speaking outside court, Chan said they contested the case because they wanted to retell the “truth of the history” – that police had used tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters under the rule of former Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying.
He said their case was significant because prosecutors were trying to hold them accountable in court for comments made during media interviews, which might have “chilling effects” on the city’s freedom of speech.
Tai responded to a motion politicians in Britain had proposed to condemn the Hong Kong government over the prosecution.
“The whole world, including those legislators in the UK and people from other parts of the world who care about democracy, human rights and justice, are concerned about the prosecution against us,” he said.
Each charge carries a maximum jail sentence of seven years.
The trial continues before Judge Johnny Chan Jong-herng on Tuesday.