Nine activists and politicians involved in Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement pleaded not guilty to their public nuisance charges on Monday.
At the start of what is expected to be a 20-day trial, the prosecution argued that the “Occupy trio” – Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, and academics Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man – were conspiring to block public roads as a calculated tactic to pressure the government.
The trio faced one count of conspiracy to cause public nuisance, inciting others to cause public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance. The charges carry a maximum jail sentence of seven years.
Other defendants included politicians Shiu Ka-chun, Lee Wing-tat, Tanya Chan, activists Raphael Wong, Tommy Cheung and Chung Yiu-wa.
All nine pleaded not guilty at the beginning of the trial, with activist Wong adding, “I want true universal suffrage, the Umbrella Movement was no crime.” Chung also added, “I plead not guilty. What is there to be guilty of?”
Prosecution lawyer Andrew Bruce said in his opening statement that the Occupy trio was responsible for “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” a 2013 project that grew into the large-scale civil disobedience movement that would last 79 days.
Bruce said that the occupation damaged public interest and was unlawful because the assembly in Admiralty and elsewhere did not receive letters of no objection from police.
The Occupy trio planned an “unreasonable obstruction” at Hong Kong’s business district to force a government response, Bruce added.
Bruce cited the trio’s public statements to the press, arguing that the court should treat the three as a conspiracy – meaning that criminal liability for one member, if proven, would also apply to the rest.
On Monday afternoon, the prosecution showed news clips of a 2013 press conference held by the Occupy trio, where they explained the concept behind “Occupy Central with Love and Peace.”
As for the other activists and politicians, the prosecution argued that they had incited members of the public to join the unlawful occupation.
Bruce said that Tanya Chan called on people to “join the banquet” – a euphemism for the occupation that Tai also used, and Cheung and Chung asked protesters to “counter-surround” police officers.
Shiu, Wong and Lee hosted demonstrations at different points of Tim Mei Avenue, Lung Wui Road and Fenwick Pier Street and Harcourt Road, according to Bruce.
Bruce said the defendants were inciting members of the public to join a “prolonged” and “indefinite” protest. Aside from the Occupy trio, the six remaining defendants face incitement charges – including “incitement to incite.”
Defence lawyers had argued earlier this year that “incitement to incite” charges were vague and unconstitutional, but Judge Johnny Chan ruled that the charges would remain.
Around 100 people showed up at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on Monday morning before trial began, holding yellow umbrellas and chanting slogans in support of the defendants.
Chu led a prayer session outside the court building, but was interrupted by court officials who ushered reporters to make space.
Supporters – including high-profile democrats – chanted slogans first used in the Umbrella Movement such as “we want real universal suffrage” and “civil disobedience no fear.” The defendants also held a black banner that read: “Not ashamed of our acts, true justice will prevail.”
Chan Kin-man, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, had announced early retirement ahead of the trial and gave his farewell lecture last Wednesday.
The prosecution and defence said that they expect to call on around 10 witnesses. The trial continues on Tuesday.