HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Hong Kong jailed four leaders of 2014 pro-democracy protests on Wednesday amid concerns over the decline of freedoms in the China city nearly five years after activists took to the streets in mass protests .
Occupy Central pro-democracy movement under Chu Yiu-ming cries as the media after getting his sentence on his involvement in the Occupy Central, also known as "Umbrella Movement", in Hong Kong, China April 24, 2019. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
The sentence of the nine activists followed a near-month trial that was closely watched as China's Communist Party leaders have put Hong Kong's autonomy under increasing strain, stoking group among foreign governments, rights groups and business people.
Law professor Benny Tai, 54, and retired sociologist Chan Kin-man, 60, were both jailed for 16 months for conspiracy to commit public nudity tied to the protests that paralyzed parts of the Asian financial center for 79 days in late 2014 and became known as the Umbrella Movement.
Justice Johnny Chan said their sentence had been reduced by two months, given their clean criminal record and positive character.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun and activist Raphael Wong were both jailed for eight months for inciting public nuisance.
"We maintain our determination to achieve universal suffrage … this won 't change," Wong shouted out in court as he was taken away.
Since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, critics say Beijing has reneged on to maintain Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and freedoms during a "one country, two systems" arrangement.
The protesters had demanded that China's Communist Party leaders allow genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong to select its leader. Police cleared the demonstrators in December 2014, and authorities granted no democratic concessions.
Chan, in passing sentence, acknowledged the right to civil disobedience and the right to assembly and free speech, but said the protracted road blockages had caused the public and some restrictions on freedoms were necessary in a democratic society.
Retired pastor Chu Yiu-ming, 75, received a suspended sentence, as did veteran democrat Lee Wing-tat and former student leader Eason Chung, with the judge taking into account their ages, public service and clean records.
Another former student leader, Tommy Cheung, was ordered to carry out 200 hours of community service.
Tanya Chan, a lawmaker, sent her postponed until June 10 on medical grounds.
Several hundred supporters, many wearing yellow bands and holding yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the protests, gathered outside the West Kowloon Law Courts. Some sobbed after the sentences were announced while others chanted demands for genuine democracy.
The trial of the activists was considered the most significant legal maneuver by authorities involved in the 2014 protests, called Occupy Central, in reference to the city's central business district.
The demonstrations were Hong Kong's biggest and most protracted in recent decades and one of the boldest challenges to China's leaders since pro-democracy protests in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Organizers estimated that more than one million people took part in the protests over nearly three months.
Authorities have clamped down on opposition forces, disqualified democratic legislators, jailed activists and banned a pro-independence political party.
Prior to the sentencing, political groups outside the court ruled each other, with pro-democracy activists calling for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to step down, while Beijing loyalists chanted: "Go away. Go occupy London. ”
The activist leaders earlier urged supporters to take to the streets this Sunday to protest against proposed extradition laws that would allow people to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China for trial.
Critics fear the laws, which are expected to be passed this year, could further erode legal protections.
All nine had argued the protests as peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience, only to benefit society and make positive democratic progress.
But Justice Chan said their "martyrdom … was a concocted one", noting that the price the defendants were prepared to pay had to be borne by an inconvenient public.
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