The landmark national security trial of Hong Kong democracy activists begins. Here’s what you need to know
Some were seasoned politicians and seasoned protest leaders. Others were academics, trade unionists and health care workers. They were from different generations and had very different political opinions, but they were united by what they said. was a shared commitment to Hong Kong’s democratic future.
Now the “Hong Kong 47”, as the group of pro-democracy activists in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory has become known, will begin appearing in court from Monday facing charges that could land them in prison for life.
Sixteen of the defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them and are expected to be the first to speak.
Their alleged crime? Organizing and participating in an unofficial primary election that prosecutors called a “massive and well-organized ploy to overthrow the Hong Kong government.”
It is Hong Kong’s biggest national security lawsuit since Beijing’s imposition THE sweeping legislation on the city following mass anti-government protests in 2019. The law criminalizes loosely defined acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, all of which are punishable by life in prison.
The landmark trial – the first involving subversion charges – is expected to last for weeks, but its implications could drag on for years, even decades, in a city that critics say is rapidly losing political freedoms and autonomy.
John Burns, professor emeritus at the University of Hong Kong, said the Democrats’ trial is a “test of the will” of Beijing’s ability to completely crush organized opposition in Hong Kong.
Burns said arresting the Democrats and pressing charges against them was intended to both intimidate and eliminate the opposition, either by driving them out of Hong Kong into exile or imprisoning them.
“It’s a process of suppression. By shutting down political parties, by shutting down unions, they are shutting down the base of support for organized opposition,” Burns said.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied such accusations. Instead, he insists that the law ended the chaos and restored stability to the city.
“Hong Kong prides itself on the rule of law; Law enforcement has a duty to take action against illegal acts, regardless of the political background of the suspects. Arrests made are evidence-based and strictly in accordance with applicable laws and regulations,” the government said in a statement responding to the criticism.
Here’s what you need to know about the case:
The 47 pro-democracy figures have been charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” under the national security law for their alleged roles in an unofficial primary election in July 2020.
The vote took place ahead of a legislative election to see which suitors would be best placed to bid against the pro-Beijing candidates.
Such contests are held in democracies around the world and involve political parties selecting the strongest candidates for an election. Hong Kong Democrats had previously held such votes in an attempt to match the organization and discipline of the rival pro-Beijing camp and avoid splitting the opposition.
Authorities, however, said the primary vote was a “vicious plot” to “cripple the government and undermine state power” by winning a majority of seats and using the mandate to block legislation.
The Government’s Electoral Affairs Committee also responded that the “so-called” primaries were “not part of the electoral procedures of the Legislative Council election or other public elections”.
In January 2021, the 47 Democrats were arrested en masse in a dawn raid. Since then, many have been remanded in custody or are in jail for other protest-related offences. Fifteen were released on bail under certain conditions.
It is extremely rare that defendants are not released on bail in Hong Kong under the common law system. However, the national security law states that defendants can only be released on bail if the court is satisfied that they “will not continue to commit acts that endanger national security”.
A Department of Justice spokesperson told CNN that bail applications in cases involving offenses “endangering national security” have been “handled fairly and adjudicated impartially by the court in taking into account the admissible evidence, the applicable laws and the merits of the case”.
Cases will be heard without a jury, contrary to common law tradition.
The defendants include a wide variety of political activists who describe themselves as ranging from moderate Democrats to radical localists, a movement that advocates Hong Kong’s independence from mainland China.
Among the 16 pleads not guilty is former journalist Gwyneth Ho, 32, of the now missing Stand News, which was shut down after a police raid in 2021 and two editors were charged with sedition.
Ho livestreamed the moment assailants indiscriminately beat people – many of them returning from a pro-democracy march – with sticks and metal bars at a train station in July 2019. Footage of the incident from Ho made international headlines, sparking an investigation into the lack of police presence. Ho herself was injured in the attack. She later stepped away from journalism to run for the 2020 Legislative Council elections.
Leung Kwok-hung, 66, nicknamed “Long Hair” for his signature hair, is a former lawmaker and retired civil servant. He was on the front lines of city politics for more than two decades and is an outspoken critic of China. He is known for his political protests – both on the streets and inside the city’s legislative chamber. In 2017 he was disqualified from the legislature for refusing to swear allegiance to China.
Lam Cheuk-ting, 45, regularly took part in street protests that sometimes escalated into clashes with police, and was often seen negotiating with police and asking them to stop using tear gas.
He was sentenced to four months in prison in January 2020 for disclosing the personal information of individuals as part of a police investigation into the Yuen Long mob attack.
On the other hand, several prominent activists have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. They have either been remanded in custody or are serving time in prison for other offenses related to the protests.
These include well-known activist Joshua Wong, 26, labeled “extremist” by Chinese state media, and Benny Tai, 54, a former law professor and co-founder of the Occupy Central movement in 2014. Claudia Mo, 66, a former journalist turned lawmaker, who has previously criticized openly tightening Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong, also pleaded guilty.