Pro-democracy activists chant slogans before the verdict on their involvement in Hong Kong's Occupy protests © Reuters

Nine prominent activists in the 2014 Occupy Hong Kong protests were found guilty on Tuesday of a range of charges relating to committing a public nuisance, in a move that critics said further erodes freedoms in the former British territory.

The three most prominent defendants, also known as the “Occupy trio” are professors Benny Tai, 54, Chan Kin-man, 60, and Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, 75, who popularised the idea of a non-violent occupation of central Hong Kong in 2014, which aimed to bring fully democratic elections to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

The idea later developed into a mostly peaceful 79-day shutdown of the commercial district of Hong Kong known as the “umbrella movement” named after the umbrellas used by supporters to fend off pepper spray from the police.

The Occupy trio were convicted of conspiracy to commit public nuisance. Tai and Chan were also found guilty of incitement to commit public nuisance.

The verdict was swiftly condemned by democracy advocates and human rights groups both in Hong Kong and internationally with Lord Patten, the final British governor of Hong Kong, calling the decision as “appallingly divisive”.

“Hong Kong courts, by labelling peaceful protests in pursuit of rights as public nuisance, are sending a terrible message that will likely embolden the government to prosecute more peaceful activists, further chilling free expression in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In delivering his verdict, Judge Johnny Chan said: “It is naive to suggest that a concession to introduce the form of universal suffrage advocated by the Trio could be made by the government overnight with a click of fingers, it is equally naive to suggest a mass protest of tens of thousands of people could be dispersed overnight even if a positive response were to come from the authorities.”

Beijing has stepped up its interventions in Hong Kong since the Occupy protests, which were the biggest street movement in greater China since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Critics said China’s increasing involvement in Hong Kong affairs has eroded the autonomy and freedoms that were promised to the former British colony for 50 years when it was handed back in 1997.

“We should not be down and we should not give up. Please continue to work hard for the rights of Hong Kong,” Reverend Chu told hundreds of supporters who gathered outside the court waving yellow umbrellas and flags, chanting “civil disobedience, we have no fear”.

In addition to the Occupy trio, sitting lawmakers Tanya Chan and Shiu Ka-chu; former lawmaker Lee Wing-tat; Eason Chung and Tommy Cheung, who were student leaders at the time of the protests; and activist Raphael Wong, were also convicted of public nuisance charges. The nine defendants all pleaded not guilty.

Several dozen other democracy activists have been imprisoned or are facing trials related to the protests and wider democracy movement they spawned. The government has also removed outspoken lawmakers from Hong Kong’s partially elected Legislative Council, issued an unprecedented ban on a pro-independence political party and effectively expelled a senior Financial Times editor.

The court is hearing arguments on sentencing this afternoon. The activists face sentences of up to seven years in jail.

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