HONG KONG -- Three leading Hong Kong democracy campaigners go on trial next week over their involvement in massive rallies calling for political reform, as room for opposition in the semi-autonomous city shrinks under an assertive China.
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.
Sociology professor Chan Kin-man, 59, law professor Benny Tai, 54, and baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, 74, 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.
The campaign was overtaken by a student movement that exploded in September 2014 when police fired tear gas on gathering crowds.
The Occupy trio urged people to join what became known as the Umbrella Movement as protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas and pepper spray.
The three men are among nine pro-democracy defendants facing “public nuisance” charges for their participation in the protests, which ultimately failed to win political reform, despite bringing parts of the city to a standstill for over two months.
Chan says he has become a marathon runner to prepare for the physical and mental challenges of a possible jail sentence — the maximum term for public nuisance is seven years.
He says he is “hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst” ahead of his trial, which starts on November 19, but adds he does not feel afraid.
“I’ve seen many of my friends suppressed by the Chinese government and I already feel privileged to have been able to fight against that in Hong Kong,” he told AFP.
He has chosen to testify in court to set the record straight.
“We’d like to take the witness stand and tell our story, tell people why this happened and the idea behind it,” says Chan.
“We need to restore history.”
Chan and Tai argue the charges against them are nonsensical and amount to a political prosecution.
The trio each face three charges based on a colonial-era law: conspiracy to cause public nuisance, inciting others to cause public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance.
Tai describes “inciting to incite” as a “far-fetched charge” and accuses authorities of redefining the meaning of rule of law to suit their own agenda.
“Order is the most important, national security is important, other basic rights are irrelevant. This is their way now,” he said.
However, despite the growing concerns that Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms are disappearing, Tai believes there is still an independent judiciary and the court will be fair.
Analyst Suzanne Pepper, an honorary fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the political reason for the trial was to discredit the democracy movement.
The charges reflect the aim of the Hong Kong government to seek guilty verdicts through “long-unused legal excuses to pursue what is essentially Beijing’s political agenda”, she said.
The explicitly non-violent principles of the campaign could pose a challenge for prosecutors, Pepper added.
She believes that although the younger generation ultimately spearheaded the Umbrella Movement, the rallies would not have happened without the trio’s Occupy Central campaign.
Both Tai and Chan say they do not regret their involvement.
Chan believes Hong Kongers still want to fight for democracy, but it is becoming more difficult under China’s tightening grip.
He says he is angry at the city’s government for doing Beijing’s bidding.
“The speed that the government is trying to drag down Hong Kong and turn it into a mainlandized city is beyond my expectations,” he said. “I didn’t anticipate the government would have no shame.”