By Katy Wong
HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong court jailed seven policemen for two years each on Friday for beating a handcuffed activist during democracy protests in 2014, a rare case of police brutality in the financial hub that triggered public outrage.
The beating happened on Oct. 15, 2014, at the height of the 79-day protests that paralysed parts of Hong Kong and posed one of the most serious political challenges to Communist Party leaders in Beijing for decades.
The policemen were filmed dragging the handcuffed protester, Ken Tsang, to a dark corner near the protest site, where he was kicked and punched repeatedly as he lay on the ground.
District court judge David Dufton, who had earlier found the policemen guilty of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, sentenced all seven to two years in prison, saying they had "brought damage to Hong Kong's reputation in the international community".
There had been no justification for the attack on Tsang, he said.
Despite pleas for mitigation from the officers' lawyers, Dufton said imprisonment was appropriate. Dufton acknowledged, however, that the "Hong Kong police were working under great pressure" to maintain order during the protests that blocked major roads for almost three months.
Tsang, a social worker, suffered face, neck and shoulder injuries. He was handcuffed with plastic ties at the time, although the court heard he had earlier thrown some liquid at police.
Some of the policemen, dressed in dark suits and ties, were stern-faced while others smiled at family members in the gallery after sentencing.
Some in the gallery cried, while a few people cheered.
Tsang described the ruling as a "small victory for civil society in the fight against police violence" and said the people of Hong Kong should fight on for full democracy.
Supporters of the police outside the court said the sentences were unfair.
Heavy-handed policing is rare in Hong Kong and the case triggered public outrage and deepened tension during the protests in which clashes erupted occasionally.
Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that accords the city a degree of autonomy and freedom not enjoyed in mainland China.
China bristles at dissent, however, especially over issues such as demands for universal suffrage.
Many in Hong Kong are increasingly concerned about what they see as Beijing's meddling in the city's affairs. Unease about the future has stoked protests and has even led to calls for independence from China.
(Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)