HONG KONG: A Hong Kong court will hand down sentences on Wednesday (Apr 24) for nine leaders of the city's "Occupy Central" protests that paralysed parts of the former British colony for 79 days in late 2014 and raised concerns about freedoms under Chinese rule.
The decision follows a closely watched trial lasting almost a month and comes at a time when Hong Kong's freedoms and autonomy have come under increasing strain from China's Communist Party leaders, stoking concern from foreign governments, rights groups and businesspeople.
The public nuisance trial is considered the most significant legal manoeuvre from authorities to punish those involved in the 2014 Occupy demonstrations, which pushed for genuine, full democracy in Hong Kong.
The demonstrators blocked roads in three important districts - Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok - and drew more than a million people over nearly three months, organisers estimated.
Nine defendants, including law professor Benny Tai, 54, retired sociologist Chan Kin-man, 60, and retired pastor Chu Yiu-ming, 75, were found guilty of at least one public nuisance charge each over their roles in planning and mobilising supporters during the protest.
Each charge carries a possible jail term of seven years.
All nine pleaded not guilty and argued the "umbrella" movement was intended as peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience, serving no motive other than to benefit society and make positive democratic progress.
A court found them guilty of public nuisance charges on Apr 9, with the judge ruling that, while civil disobedience is allowed in Hong Kong, it couldn't excuse an illegal act.
More than 100 supporters gathered outside the West Kowloon Law Courts building before the sentencing, chanting support for the defendants and saying they were "fearless and invincible".
The demonstrations were the largest and most protracted mass movement in recent decades in the global financial hub, and one of the boldest populist challenges to China's leaders since the pro-democracy protests in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise that the capitalist hub would remain unchanged for 50 years and continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, an independent common law system, and freedoms not allowed in mainland China.
Since then, however, critics say China has reneged on its pledge, with authorities clamping down on opposition forces, disqualifying democratic lawmakers from the legislature, jailing activists, blocking aspiring young politicians from contesting local elections and banning a pro-independence political party.
Authorities are also now pushing for the enactment of a new extradition arrangement with mainland Chinese authorities that has raised grave human rights concerns.