An outspoken Hong Kong cardinal on Wednesday defended leading democracy campaigners on trial over massive 2014 rallies which paralysed parts of the city, praising their commitment to peaceful protest.

Joseph Zen, the former Bishop of Hong Kong, is well-known for his vocal opposition to political oppression in China and his support for democratic reform.

Joseph Zen
Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, leaves after testifying as a defence witness at the West Kowloon Magistrates Court in Hong Kong on December 5, 2018. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

Testifying as a witness of character, he said he believed civil disobedience was a “reasonable approach” and felt “ashamed” that he did not endure the pepper spray and tear gas that many demonstrators faced.

The rallies lasted 79 days and made international headlines but ultimately failed to win political reform.

Sociology professor Chan Kin-man, 59, law professor Benny Tai, 54, and baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, 74, are on trial on public nuisance charges over their role in the Umbrella Movement protests.

They founded the “Occupy Central” movement in 2013, calling for the occupation of Hong Kong’s business district if the public was not given a fair vote for the city’s leader, who is appointed by a pro-Beijing committee.

Their campaign was overtaken by a student movement that exploded the following year when police fired tear gas on gathering crowds, who used umbrellas to shield themselves.

Zen said he thought the police’s use of gas to disperse crowds was “unwise” and worried it would fan public anger.

“So I took a loudspeaker and said ‘let’s go home, we already won, don’t stay here. [The government] were irrational, they used violence’. But of course, not many people listened to me,” he said.

Zen told the court of the trio’s dedication to the principles of peaceful protest.

“There was civil disobedience because for a long time the injustice in society still could not be corrected. Therefore I thought civil disobedience was a reasonable approach,” he said.

He also recalled discussing his concerns with the Occupy leaders over how the protests would develop.

“It was like the students were leading it but didn’t seem to be able to control the situation. It seemed like the trio no longer had the chance to give their opinions,” he said.

The prosecution has argued that the mass protests caused a “common injury done to the public,” who were affected by the blockage of major roads.

Defendant Chan Kin-man told the court last week how the three had tried to convey their wish for competitive elections by meeting with Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, then chief secretary, before the mass rallies.

But instead of a discussion Lam had “only repeatedly asked us to end this movement as soon as possible.”

The three men are among nine pro-democracy defendants facing charges for their part in the protests.

The justice department has prosecuted leading activists from the 2014 protests, with some also barred from standing for office and others thrown out of the legislature.

Most of those prosecuted so far have been young campaigners, but now it is the turn of the older generation whose original idea of taking to the streets to demand a fairer system was a precursor to the rallies.

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