Hong Kong to rule on democrats in biggest national security trial

A Hong Kong court will begin issuing verdicts on Thursday in the city’s largest national security trial, as authorities use sweeping powers imposed by Beijing to stifle political dissent in the Chinese territory.

The 47 pro-democracy activists and opposition leaders on trial – including Benny Tai, a former law professor, and Joshua Wong, a protest leader and founder of a student group – face prison terms, in some cases perhaps up to life in prison. Their crime: holding primary elections to improve their chances in citywide polls.

Most of the defendants have spent at least the last three years in detention before and during the 118-day trial. On Thursday, judges chosen by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader began handing down verdicts on 16 of them who had pleaded not guilty. Those convicted will be sentenced later, along with 31 others who pleaded guilty.

The expected convictions and subsequent sentences would effectively turn the city’s opposition vanguard, a hallmark of its once vibrant political scene, into a generation of political prisoners.

Some are former lawmakers who entered politics after the British returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. Others are activists and lawmakers who have advocated for Hong Kong self-determination with more confrontational tactics. Several, like Wong, who rose to fame as a bespectacled teenage activist, were among the students who led large street occupations for voting rights in 2014.

“The message from the authorities is clear: any opposition activism, even moderate ones, will no longer be tolerated,” said Ho-fung Hung, an expert on Hong Kong politics at Johns Hopkins University.

Most had sought to defend the rights of Hong Kong residents in the face of Beijing’s growing control over the city. Public alarm over shrinking freedoms in Hong Kong had sparked massive, sometimes violent protests in 2019 and early 2020, representing the biggest challenge to Chinese authority since 1989.

In response, China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, giving authorities a powerful tool to arrest critics such as the 47 indicted Democrats, including Tai, the law professor who had been a leading pro-party strategist. . field of democracy, and Claudia Mo, former legislator and veteran activist.

Authorities charged them with “conspiracy to commit subversion” for their efforts to organize or participate in an unofficial primary election in 2020 before the vote to elect seats in the Legislative Council.

In the past, pro-democracy activists had held primary elections to select candidates who would run for city leader without any problems, Professor Hung said.

“The fact that they were arrested and convicted and even put behind bars for so long before the verdict manifests a fundamental change in the political environment in Hong Kong: free elections, even the pretense of free elections, have disappeared,” he said. Professor Hung.

The case that Hong Kong authorities have brought against the activists is complicated and largely based on a scenario that has not happened. Prosecutors say the unofficial primary elections were problematic because the pro-democracy bloc was using them to gain a majority in the legislature. They accuse the activists of conspiring to then use that majority to “indiscriminately” veto the government budget, ultimately forcing the then-city leader to resign.

That election never happened. But the activists were arrested in 2021 and their case finally went to trial in February last year, after long procedural delays.

Of the 47 defendants, 31 pleaded guilty, including Mr. Wong, who has been serving prison terms since 2020 in other cases related to his activism. Four of them: Au Nok-hin, former legislator; Andrew Chiu and Ben Chung, former district officials; and Mike Lam, a supermarket chain owner with political ambitions, testified for the prosecution in exchange for a reduced sentence.

The 16 defendants who pleaded not guilty include Leung Kwok-hung, a veteran activist known as “Long Hair” who pushed for welfare policies for the elderly and the poor; Lam Cheuk-ting, an anti-corruption investigator turned lawmaker; and Gwyneth Ho, former journalist.

Since their mass arrests, the city has all but eliminated opposition voices in its political institutions. Only approved “patriots” were allowed to stand for election to the city’s legislature in 2021. And in March, Hong Kong passed its own national security laws with extraordinary speed, at Beijing’s behest.

The new laws, known collectively as the National Security Safeguarding Ordinance, criminalized broadly defined crimes such as “external interference” and “theft of state secrets,” with penalties including life imprisonment. On Tuesday, the city detained six people under the new security law for allegedly posting “seditious materials” online. The arrests come days before the 35th anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. One of those detained was activist Chow Hang Tung, organizer of a group that has held vigils to remember the victims of Tiananmen.

Observers say the political cases are testing the city’s vaunted judicial independence. A trial is underway against Jimmy Lai, a media mogul and outspoken critic of Beijing. Weeks ago, a court accepted a government request to ban a popular protest song, raising concerns about the speech.

At the trial of the 47 Democrats, the prosecution and defense argued whether non-violent acts, such as primary elections, could be considered an act of subversion. The national security law defines a person guilty of subversion as someone who organizes or carries out actions “by force or threat of force or other illegal means.”

The defense had argued that they had not participated in violence and believed that the primary elections did not violate the laws and were therefore openly planned. The prosecutor, Jonathan Man, argued that the language must be given a “broad interpretation” to ensure its effectiveness.

The lengthy legal process and prolonged detention have taken a heavy personal toll on the accused. A former lawmaker, Wu Chi-wai, lost both parents while behind bars. Many of the defendants are parents of young children.

“Almost all of them are seeing their own lives put on hold; these are some of Hong Kong’s best and brightest, all of whom have seen their careers cut short as they endure month after month behind bars,” said Thomas Kellogg., the executive director of the Georgetown Asian Law Center. “A truly sad story.”

During sentencing, which will likely take place months later, the 47 defendants are expected to be classified into tiers, jurists have said. Those considered “main offenders” could be sentenced to between 10 years and life in prison. “Active participants”, between three and 10 years in prison. Others found guilty could be jailed or subject to unspecified “restrictions” for up to three years.

Eva Pils, a law professor at King’s College London, said authorities would likely use the outcome of the trial to set an example for those who crossed Beijing’s lines. But the chilling effect of the trial would end up being detrimental to the government, Professor Pils argued.

“By creating more repression, fear and self-censorship, you are depriving yourself of the opportunity to know what Hong Kongers really think about your decisions,” he said. “I think that’s part of what will make this such an important case in Hong Kong history.”

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