Subversion trial of Hong Kong political activists begins
HONG KONG– Some of Hong Kong’s best-known pro-democracy activists went on trial Monday in the biggest prosecution yet under a law imposed by China’s ruling Communist Party to crush dissent.
The 18 defendants face life in prison if convicted under the national security law, which critics say erodes the autonomy promised when Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, and its status as a center global trade.
They were among 47 pro-democracy figures who were arrested in 2021 under legislation imposed following the 2019 protests. They were charged in connection with an informal 2020 primary election.
The pro-democracy movement largely dried up after activists were imprisoned or went into exile. A growing number of young professionals have responded to the erosion of Western-style civil liberties in Hong Kong by leaving for Britain, the United States and other countries. The United States has imposed sanctions on officials it believes were responsible for the abuses.
The 2020 primary aimed to select pro-democracy candidates likely to take control of the territory’s Legislative Council. Prosecutors accuse them of trying to cripple the Hong Kong government and overthrow the city’s leader by securing a majority to veto budgets.
The indictment implicates many of the city’s most prominent activists, including jurist Benny Tai, former student leader Joshua Wong and opposition party leaders Wu Chi-wai and Alvin Yeung.
In previous proceedings, the 18 activists had indicated that they intended to plead not guilty. But two of them – former district councilor Ng Kin-wai and businessman Mike Lam – later changed their minds, joining the other 29 activists, including Tai, Wong, Yeung and Wu, who plan to admit the charges.
While most of the 47 activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion have been held without bail for nearly two years, former lawmakers Raymond Chan and Helena Wong, who appeared in court on Monday, were among the minority who released on bail under strict rules. terms.
Ahead of the opening statements, the couple, alongside 14 other activists, pleaded not guilty before the judges, who were approved by the town leader to oversee the case. Ng and Lam pleaded guilty.
Those who intend to plead guilty will receive their sentence after the trial. Some of them, including Wong and former District Councilor Lester Shum, were in the courtroom to observe the trial.
Earlier in the morning, more than 200 people, including relatives and friends of the defendants, lined up outside the court as local police stepped up security in the area.
Some people at the front of the line, including a group of more than 10 people who came at 6 a.m. to secure a seat for the hearing, said they had no idea what the trial was about. This prompted pro-democracy activists among the spectators to wonder if they were simply trying to fill the seats so that other members of the public could not have room to observe the highly publicized trial.
Three members of the League of Social Democrats staged a small protest outside the complex, demanding the immediate release of all political prisoners. A member was taken away by police for violating the mask mandate when he took off his mask and tried to speak loudly.
The trial is expected to last 90 days. The case has drawn international attention, with advocacy groups and politicians condemning the charges.
The government postponed the legislative election that would have followed the primary, citing public health risks during the coronavirus pandemic. The electoral system was later overhauled to give Beijing more control over who gets elected to Hong Kong’s legislature.
The National Security Act criminalizes secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces to interfere in city affairs as well as terrorism. Besides the activists, pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai also faces collusion charges under the law.
Associated Press video reporter Alice Fung contributed to this report.