Hong Kong protest leaders appear in court smiling after surprise summons

HONG KONG, March 30 (Reuters) - Nine leaders of Hong Kong's

2014 democracy protests appeared in court on Thursday after

their surprise summons, charged with inciting the street

occupation that paralysed parts of the city for months in what

some expect to be a long legal battle.

The nine were charged on Monday, just a day after a new

Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, was chosen as the city's next

leader, seen by many as a worrying sign after she had vowed to

heal divisions in the Chinese-ruled city and unite society

.

The protest leaders, including the "Occupy Central trio" of

Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, entered the

magistrates' court smiling and shaking hands with a few dozen

supporters, some holding yellow umbrellas, the symbol of the

2014 civil disobedience movement.

The "Occupy Central trio" each face charges including

conspiracy to commit public nuisance and inciting others to

commit public nuisance.

Six others, including two legislators and two former student

protest leaders, were also charged with crimes related to public

nuisance.

The nine told the court they understood the charges, but the

hearing was largely procedural and didn't require them to enter

pleas.

The case was adjourned until May 25.

Veteran pro-democracy politician and barrister Martin Lee,

representing five of the defendants, requested the case be

transferred to the high court instead of the district court, so

that the nine could be tried by a jury.

"After all, the allegations are of a public nature," Lee

said.

The judge says it was up to the prosecution to decide which

court tries the case.

Outside the court, about a dozen pro-China protesters jeered

at the protest leaders, cursing them in colourful Cantonese to

get stabbed, while slapping photos of them with flip-flops.

The charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years, Tai

said, adding the activists might plead guilty, in the spirit of

civil disobedience.

The former British colony, governed under a "one country,

two systems" formula, was promised a high degree of autonomy and

the right to select its chief executive when it was handed back

to Communist Chinese rule in 1997.

Twenty years later, only 1,200 people on an "election

committee" stacked with Beijing loyalists voted Lam into power.

(Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by James Pomfret and Nick

Macfie)