Banner in support of Hong Kong police
Supporters of police officers stand outside a court where the seven police officers stood trial in Hong Kong in February Bobby Yip/Reuters

Thousands of people have rallied in Hong Kong on 22 February in support of the seven police officers that were sentenced to two years in prison for assaulting pro-democracy activist Ken Tsang in 2014.

The organisers claimed at least 33,000 people took part in the event, including current and retired police officers and their families. They filled the grounds of the Police Sports and Recreation Club in Hong Kong for a closed-doors rally organised by four police officers' associations. Including the civilian staff, the Hong Kong police force currently consists of around 35,000 officers.

The event was closed to the media, but local reporters were interviewing people as they entered and exited the club and watched the rally from the fences.

According to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), one of the speakers asked that lawmakers amend measures so as to prevent insults to the police.

Some politicians were within earshot. Lawmaker and candidate to the position of Hong Kong chief executive Regina Ip was at the rally.

"It would be best to prevent the public from insulting police officers," she said, quoted in HKFP.

"They are upset that people insult them with expletives. I hope people won't do that. Our public officers deserve respect and dignity," she added.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung also showed up to support the police officers.

The sentences, handed down on 17 February, to seven policemen accused of assaulting Tsang were criticised as being too severe. Representing around 20,000 officers, the police union said in a statement the verdict was "unacceptable".

"I feel shocked like every one of you and found it unacceptable. The jail term already went beyond our acceptance level," the chairman of the junior police officers' association, Joe Chan Cho-kwong, wrote in a statement to union members, quoted in the South China Morning Post. The association was going to start a fund to support the officers, who had decided to appeal the case.

【#支持警察】美芬親身經歷萬人集會撐警 感動場面美芬爭取制訂反辱警法,為香港警隊爭回一個受尊重,有尊嚴的執法環境!香港警察,我們敬重您們!#梁美芬 #眾警察協會聯合特別代表大會

Posted by 梁美芬 Priscilla Leung on Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The officers were suspended from the force and arrested in November 2014, after video footage of the assault emerged. Pro-democracy demonstrators and supporters of the police both rallied outside the courthouse when the verdict was read on 14 February – and when the sentence was decided three days later, in another example of exacerbating tensions in the city state.

Pro-democracy demonstrations brought much of Hong Kong to a standstill for 79 days in 2014. Protesters were demanding more independence from China, which regained control of the former British territory in 1997. Hong Kong was granted a degree of freedom and autonomy not enjoyed by the rest of mainland China under the "one country, two systems" style of governance agreed by the UK and China in negotiations on the handover.