Hong Kong has charged a group of prominent pro-democracy activists for taking part in last year’s mass anti-government protests.
Among those in court on Monday to hear formal charges were 72-year-old media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of anti-establishment newspaper Apple Daily, and Martin Lee, an octogenarian former lawyer who helped write the city’s constitution.
The group of 15 also includes former legislators Margaret Ng, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Au Nok-hin and current legislator Leung Yiu-chung.
All of them were charged with organising and taking part in last year’s assemblies. Five face a more serious charge of incitement, which carries up to five years in jail.
All were bailed out, and some used the appearance to criticise the government.
Asked by a judge if he understood the charges, social activist Raphael Wong shouted: “I understand this is a political prosecution.”
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from the court, said the case has now been adjourned until next month.
“They have been charged under a colonial-era law known as the Public Order Ordinance. This is a very vague piece of legislation,” he said. “It means they potentially face up to five years in prison for taking part in last year’s assemblies.”
The arrests sparked criticism from the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United Nation’s human rights body, the latter saying non-violent activists should not be prosecuted for attending unsanctioned rallies.
Hong Kong’s government said the police were following the law while Beijing has praised the prosecutions.
The charges came on another day of chaos inside the city’s House Committee – a body that helps scrutinise bills – with protesting pro-democracy MPs dragged from the chamber by security guards and scuffles between rival camps.
It is the second time in two weeks that clashes have broken out as pro-democracy supporters try to scupper a law that criminalises alleged “abuse” of China’s national anthem.
Calls for greater democracy have snowballed in recent years as fears rise that Beijing is working to erode Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Millions hit the streets last year for seven months of pro-democracy rallies that often spun out into clashes between police and petrol bomb-wielding protesters.
Those protests were initially sparked by another controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions of suspects to mainland China to face trial there.
That bill, which was eventually withdrawn, also sparked fights in the legislature before the political unrest exploded onto the streets.
China’s leaders have dismissed popular anger in Hong Kong and instead portrayed last year’s protests as a foreign-sponsored plot to destabilise the motherland.
Beijing has made clear it wants new security legislation passed after last year’s unrest, including an anti-sedition law and the national anthem bill – as well as more “patriotic” education in schools.
Al Jazeera and news agencies