Nine activists reported to police on Monday evening, following a surprise decision to press charges against them for their leadership roles in the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests.
Law professor Benny Tai, one of those targeted, said he is willing to plead guilty if the charges against him are factually accurate. He said a guilty plea aligns with the spirit of civil disobedience – the central theme of the 79-day Occupy demonstrations.
Activist Raphael Wong, who is also being charged, said the timing of the police crackdown “clearly” showed it was a political prosecution.
“It was a script written by [incumbent leader] Leung Chun-ying from a long time ago,” Wong said outside the police station. He said he believed Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam was not involved in the decision, but he questioned her ability to mend social divisions given the turn of events.
The Department of Justice asked the public to not politicise criminal prosecutions. Barrister and former lawmaker Ronny Tong also dismissed claims that the decision was politically motivated.
In response, Tai said the timing of the prosecution – taking place just one day after the chief executive election – provides a reasonable basis for suspecting that political considerations played a part in the decision.
A number of leaders and participants of the Occupy protests handed themselves in to police on December 3, 2014, shortly after a police crackdown ended the demonstrations. Not all of those who went to a police station on that day have been charged.
Eight of the nine leaders are facing the common law charges of inciting others to create a public nuisance, and inciting others to incite more people to create a public nuisance.
Tai and two other founders of the Occupy movement – sociology professor Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chiu Yiu-ming – face an additional charge of conspiring to create a public nuisance.
Meanwhile, former lawmaker of the Democratic Party Lee Wing-tat faces one charge of inciting others to create a public nuisance.
Each of the charges carries a maximum penalty of seven years behind bars.
International watchdogs such as Amnesty International Hong Kong and Freedom House have condemned the prosecutions. US-based Freedom House said: “Authorities should drop all charges against these activists and formulate a timeline to allow real democracy and universal suffrage in Hong Kong.”
A police spokesperson said the force respected the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but it has a duty to maintain law and order.
It said nine people involved in the “illegal Occupy movement” would appear in front of the Eastern Magistrates’ Courts on Thursday. The trial will take place at the District Court at a later date.
The Occupy protests erupted in Hong Kong after Beijing decided that a 1,200-member nomination committee – likely stacked with Beijing loyalists – would vet chief executive candidates before a popular vote. Demonstrators occupied major thoroughfares in the city for 79 days.