Veteran Hong Kong activists flashed protest salutes and accused authorities of "political persecution" as they went on trial Tuesday for organizing one of the biggest democracy protests to engulf the city in 2019.
The nine defendants include some of the city's most prominent pro-democracy campaigners, many of whom are non-violence advocates who have spent decades campaigning in vain for universal suffrage.
Among them are Martin Lee, an 82-year-old barrister who was once chosen by Beijing to help write Hong Kong's mini-constitution, and Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old barrister and former opposition lawmaker.
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, currently in custody after his arrest under Beijing's new national security law, is also among those on trial.
Others are leading members of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the coalition that organized a series of huge rallies throughout 2019.
They each face up to five years in jail if convicted.
As they entered court on Tuesday, some of the activists flashed a three-finger salute, a symbol now used across Asia to protest authoritarianism.
Others stood behind a banner which declared: "Peaceful assembly is not a crime, shame on political persecution."
The group is being prosecuted for organizing an unauthorized assembly on August 18, 2019 -- one of the biggest in Hong Kong that year as people took to the streets for seven straight months calling for democracy and greater police accountability.
Organizers estimated 1.7 million people turned out -- almost one in four Hong Kong residents -- though that number was difficult to independently verify.
Those involved described it as the second-largest protest of 2019, with demonstrators marching peacefully for hours under a sea of umbrellas and thundery skies.
'Assembly not a crime' -
At the start of Tuesday's trial -- which is expected to last 10 days -- all except two defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Former CHRF convenor Au Nok-hin pleaded guilty to two charges of organising and taking part in an unlawful assembly while former lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung pleaded guilty to taking part in the march but not guilty to organizing it.
Protests in Hong Kong can only go ahead with the permission of authorities and rights groups have long criticised the use of unauthorised assembly prosecutions.
This week's trial caused controversy before it began.
British lawyer David Perry, hired by the Hong Kong government to be the lead prosecutor, stepped down last month following withering criticism from both the UK government and British legal bodies over his decision to take the job.
In their opening statement on Tuesday, prosecutors accused the group of defying police instructions that day and encouraging crowds to march across Hong Kong's main island, bringing traffic disruption.
Since 2019, protests have been all but outlawed with authorities either refusing permission on security grounds or later because of the pandemic.
The rallies in 2019 often descended into clashes between riot police and a knot of hardcore participants, and posed the most concerted challenge to China's rule since the former British colony's 1997 handover.
The movement eventually fizzled out under the combined weight of exhaustion, some 10,000 arrests and the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities have since unleashed a broad crackdown and Beijing has imposed a new security law which criminalizes much dissent.
China and Hong Kong's leaders say the law is needed to restore stability to the finance hub.
Critics counter that Beijing has shredded the liberties and autonomy it promised Hong Kong could maintain after the handover.