HONG KONG - The teenage face of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, 18-year-old Joshua Wong, slammed the authorities Thursday in a court appearance linked to mass protests which brought parts of the city to a standstill for months.
Wong was one of 29 activists at the High Court for a preliminary hearing on possible criminal contempt charges for blocking the police clearance of one of the main protest camps in November.
China has pledged that voters in Hong Kong can elect the city's next chief executive in 2017 - the first time there has ever been a public vote. But it insists that only two or three candidates can stand and that they will be vetted by a loyalist committee, a decision that sparked protests which ended last month.
Authorities say the demonstrations were illegal and police have vowed to target the "principal instigators" in an ongoing investigation.
The activists were given the chance to address the court, with some shouting, "I want true democracy", calls that were echoed by supporters in the public gallery.
"The government is using legal procedures to suppress the Umbrella Movement," Wong said, referring to the name for the pro-democracy campaign.
"It is wasting taxpayer's money... to stop people from taking future action." Wong is the founder of the student protest group Scholarism and became one of the most prominent voices of the pro-democracy movement during the street protests.
Another student leader, Lester Shum, 21, accused the authorities of "abusing legal proceedings".
"The court is being used as a political tool for suppression," he said.
Before the hearing, the group had gathered outside holding yellow umbrellas - the symbol of the movement.
The justice department said in court Thursday that it would pursue criminal contempt cases against 22 of the activists who appeared, including Wong and Shum, but did not lay official charges, requesting more time to gather "documentation".
Bailiffs and police cleared the Mongkok protest camp - scene of some of the most violent clashes during the demonstrations - in late November leading to at least 150 arrests.
The contempt charges relate to the violation of the injunction order to clear the site.
Wong said Tuesday he had also been summoned to a police station to provide "assistance in an investigation" next week but had not been told what charges he might face.
Other activists say they too have been asked to attend police stations later this month.
The police said in a statement they would "continue to conduct a comprehensive investigation and collect evidence impartially, and do not rule out arrest action." Hong Kong legal analyst Simon Young said it was important for the criminal justice system to respond to the protests "because of concerns with the people's perception of the rule of law".
But it should be "measured and appropriate", he said.
"These were genuine acts of civil disobedience where people were acting out of their conscience," said Young, who is associate dean for Hong Kong University's Faculty of Law.
Hong Kong was handed from Britain back to China in 1997 and enjoys freedoms not seen on the mainland.