Three men who sparked the Occupy movement that became the biggest pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong’s recent history go on trial on Monday to face charges they say are politically motivated.
The three are charged with a string of offences relating to causing a “public nuisance” and face as long as seven years in prison if found guilty.
The Occupy protests shut down the Central district of Hong Kong for 79 days as people camped in the streets to show their support for Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Monday’s trial comes with the territory’s autonomy – which is supposed to be guaranteed under China’s one country, two systems policy – under severe strain. The pro-independence National Party has been banned, censorship is increasing and freedom of speech is under attack.
This week, Hong Kong students used their university graduation as an opportunity to protest a law that makes it a criminal offence to “disrespect” the national anthem of mainland China.
The three facing trial, sociology professor Kin-man Chan, 59, law professor Benny Tai, 54, and Baptist minister Chu Yiu-Ming, 74, and six others are charged with conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, inciting others to cause a public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to cause a public nuisance – a charge Hong Kong legislator Claudia Mo called “obsolete”.
The government is using “obsolete charges that have been done away with in places like Australia to maximise the charges and ensure that the defendants receive prison time”, Mo told Al Jazeera. “It is rather unsettling.”
Tai, who has published multiple books analysing Hong Kong law, said the severity of their sentences will depend on whether the charges are considered concurrently or consecutively. The latter could mean as long as seven years in jail.
Chan has taken up long-distance running to prepare for the psychological and physical challenges of prison. He plans to run a marathon in February while the court deliberates. Chan said guessing how the courts will proceed has been extremely difficult because of the unprecedented nature of the charges.
“There is no record for us to look to,” Chan told Al Jazeera. “Documents on the Umbrella movement are really inconsistent. The court of appeals has said that if people are not violent, they should not receive jail time, but then these high-level rulings are ignored.”
Last week a 72-year-old man was sentenced to four months in prison for taking part, peacefully, in the Occupy movement. Several fellow activists, including Joshua Wong, are in the process of appealing their sentences.
Chill over free speech
Tai said the charges will have a chilling effect on Hong Kong, where free speech has been increasingly under strain. Tai warned that even defending civil liberties, by simply discussing the subject, will have consequences.
“If you discuss it, the government will consider it conspiracy so that will deter people from simply talking about it – they could be charged with ‘inciting others to incite’,” he said. “They want to deter public talk of civil disobedience, and therefore they will kill civil disobedience and any form of public action will be deterred.”
Since October, free speech and freedom of the press have been increasingly undermined. Victor Mallet, a Financial Times journalist and vice president of the Foreign Correspondents Club, was denied his Hong Kong visa renewal after chairing a discussion at the FCC with National Party leader Andy Chan.
Chinese dissident artist Badiucao cancelled a show after receiving “serious threats” from Chinese authorities. Badiucao’s host, Hong Kong Free Press, said the threats fuelled concern for the artist’s safety.
Last week, appearances by Chinese author-in-exile Ma Jian during the Hong Kong International Literary Festival were cancelled after the venue, Tai Kwun, refused to host him. Tai Kwun’s director Timothy Calnin said the art space would not be used to “promote the political interests of any individual”.
Amid widespread accusations of self-censorship, Ma Jian’s talks were rescheduled under the condition the author would not use the opportunity as a political platform. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam rejected suggestions of government involvement.
‘Politically correct, or else’
Mo said while the government may not have exercised pressure on Tai Kwun, self-censorship was their responsibility. “They [the government] have created an overwhelming atmosphere where you have to be politically correct, or else.”
Tai, Yiu-Ming, and Chan say they have no regrets about their role in the 2014 protests.
Chan plans to testify in court and share the “real history” of the movement.
“The official version calls the demonstration a ‘public nuisance’,” he said. “It fails to mention the excessive use of force that came down on peaceful protesters. If anything incited people, it was the tear gas. That was unconstitutional.”
In anticipation of his trial and expected imprisonment, Chan gave a farewell speech to a full house of more than 600 students and colleagues at the Chinese University in Hong Kong.
He invited six other activists facing trial, including Tai and Yiu-Ming, to the stage, where they all received a standing ovation.
Chan urged his audience not to lose hope in each other or Hong Kong. “I hope you do not give up – we can only see the stars in the darkest hours.”