HONG KONG (Reuters) – More than 100 protesters rallied outside a Hong Kong court early on Monday in support of three leaders of the Chinese-ruled city’s 2014 civil disobedience “Occupy” movement who face charges related to public nuisance.
Law professor Benny Tai, 54, sociologist professor Chan Kin-man, 59, and retired pastor Chu Yiu-ming, 74, face three charges of conspiracy to commit public nuisance, incitement to commit public nuisance, and incitement to incite public nuisance.
Each charge carries a maximum jail term of seven years. Six others are also charged in a case that comes as the financial hub’s civil liberties are coming under increasing strain.
The protesters waved yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the pro-democracy movement, and pumped their fists as they chanted: “I want universal suffrage.”
Another protester held an umbrella with the words: “Power to the People.”
In 2013, the trio began promulgating and planning a non-violent civil disobedience campaign to occupy streets in the city’s central business district should China not allow a truly democratic vote for its next leader.
The “Occupy” campaign germinated in September 2014 and became part of what grew into the biggest populist challenge to China’s Communist party leaders since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing in 1989.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong in sustained and continuous occupations of major roads for close to three months.
The six other defendants include veteran democratic party member Lee Wing-tat, democratic lawmaker Tanya Chan, activist Raphael Wong and student leaders Tommy Cheung and Eason Chung.
The case could have repercussions for hundreds of other protesters who have not yet been charged.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, with the guarantee of a high degree of autonomy and freedoms denied citizens in mainland China, including freedom of speech and the right to protest.
However, critics that include foreign governments, business groups and activists say that the guarantee is ringing increasingly hollow.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned in a report to Congress last week that China had “ramped up its interference” toward Hong Kong and had “closed down the political space for prodemocracy activists to express discontent”.
Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Paul Tait