A court in Hong Kong has sentenced eight leaders of the massive 2014 Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests to up to 16 months in prison on public nuisance charges.
The sentences are seen as an effort by the government of the semi-autonomous territory to draw a line under the protests amid pressure from China’s central government.
Three protest leaders were given 16 months, one of them suspended for two years, two received eight months in prison and two were given suspended eight-month sentences. Another was ordered to perform 200 hours of community service. One other defendant, Tanya Chan, had her sentencing postponed as she is due to undergo surgery.
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The protest leaders pledged to continue fighting for democracy. “Thank you for the sentencing,” Raphael Wong, given eight months, told Judge Johnny Chan. “Our determination on fighting for genuine universal suffrage will not change.”
The nine were leaders of the “Occupy Central” campaign, a non-violent pro-democracy sit-in that paralysed parts of Hong Kong for 79 days in late 2014.
The movement became known as the “Umbrella Movement” after participants used umbrellas to defend themselves against police pepper spray. Over one million people took part, according to organisers.
Protesters demanded the right to freely nominate candidates for Hong Kong’s leader, who would then be elected by all of the territory’s roughly five million voters.
Police cleared the demonstrators in December 2014, and authorities granted no democratic concessions. Chief Executive Carrie Lam was chosen in 2017 from a slate of candidates approved by Beijing, and elected by a 1,200-member pro-China electoral body.
Judges acknowledged the right to civil disobedience and the right to assembly and free speech, but said the protracted road blockages had caused suffering to the public and that some restrictions on freedoms were necessary in a democratic society.
The sentences come after China’s Communist Party leaders have put Hong Kong’s autonomy under increasing strain, stoking concern among foreign governments, business people and rights groups.
“The long sentences send a chilling warning to all that there will be serious consequences for advocating for democracy,” said Maya Wang, Hong Kong-based chief researcher for China at Human Rights Watch.
“The Beijing and Hong Kong authorities appear intent on eliminating the only pocket of freedoms on Chinese soil.”
The defendants had all pleaded not guilty, calling the prosecutions politically motivated.