By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong democracy leaders pledged on Friday to sustain their fight for full democracy at the end of a month-long trial that could see them jailed for leading and inciting 2014 protests against what they see as Beijing's unjust curbs on freedom.
Nine defendants face a maximum seven years in jail for each of various charges that include conspiracy to commit public nuisance and incitement to commit public nuisance. A verdict is expected on April 9.
They all pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say they were instigators of the 79-day "Occupy" protests in late 2014 which drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets, hoping to press Beijing to grant full democracy in the global financial hub.
"Only through the introduction of genuine universal suffrage could a door be opened to resolving the deep-seated conflicts in Hong Kong," one of the nine, law professor Benny Tai, 54, told the court.
"The price of freedom is indeed eternal vigilance."
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula, with the promise of a high degree of autonomy and universal suffrage as an "ultimate aim".
Critics, however, including foreign governments and business groups, say that the guarantee is ringing increasingly hollow, with a democratic reform process now largely stalled.
The trial is the latest in a series against Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition that has seen scores of activists jailed.
Activists say Hong Kong's freedoms have come under increasing strain, and they point to the recent expulsion of a British journalist and various steps to shut out democrats from city politics.
Hong Kong's government says the rule of law is a "core value" and it is trying to heal political and social divides and push political reform. But it says it will not tolerate any talk of moves towards independence from China.
'SPIRIT' OF DR KING
The prosecution's case focussed on three people: Tai, retired sociologist Chan Kin-man, 59, and retired pastor Chu Yiu-ming, 74.
The prosecution presented video evidence to illustrate what it said was their role in leading, planning, and unlawfully inciting others to obstruct public places during the "Occupy Central" protests. Central is Hong Kong's business district.
The three defended the civil disobedience movement as a constitutionally protected right to push for social justice, at times citing the example of U.S. civil rights leader, Martin Luther King.
"I was inspired very much by Dr King, and this is the same spirit we have implanted ... we strive to inspire self-sacrificing love and peacefulness but not to incite anger and hatred," Tai said.
Lawyers for the three argued that the actual "Occupy" movement ended up taking place in other locations, not the business district as initially planned, and it was a spontaneous movement, partly spearheaded by students and inflamed when police fired teargas.
Six others, including lawmakers Tanya Chan and Shiu Ka-chun, two former student leaders Eason Chung and Tommy Cheung, activist Raphael Wong and veteran democrat Lee Wing-tat, also face various public nuisance charges.
"If we still don’t have the right to vote, it's a dead end for Hong Kong," said Chan.
"I'm very sure that it's the duty of every citizen to protect freedom and also the duty for every citizen to fight for democracy. It is the only way."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)