Dozens of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy figures are one step closer to learning their fate in the city’s biggest national security case to date, as prosecutors and defense lawyers return to court on Wednesday to deliver closing speeches, nearly three years after the mass arrests.
The 47 activists and politicians were charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” for their role in holding unofficial primaries in 2020 to decide who would run in the municipal elections.
Those on trial say the plan was simply part of the pluralist, oppositional politics that has long been allowed in Hong Kong. Prosecutors allege it amounted to a “large-scale and well-organized plan to undermine the Hong Kong government.”
If convicted, they face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The prosecution is the most sweeping crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp since Beijing imposed a national security law on the semi-autonomous city in 2020, following mass anti-government protests the year before.
For critics, the fate of the “Hong Kong 47,” as the defendants have become known, offers a stark insight into how the national security law has curtailed political dissidents and activism in the once outspoken city – even through channels that were once permitted. in the United States. its partial democracy.
Most of the suspects have been held for more than two years in a case that is being closely watched to see how Hong Kong’s judiciary, long a cornerstone of the international financial center’s success, will apply the national security law in a time when Beijing is in turmoil. his grip tightens.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied that the national security law is suppressing freedoms. Instead, it insists the law has ended the chaos and restored “stability” to the city.
The 47 defendants include seasoned politicians, elected lawmakers and young protest leaders, as well as academics, trade unionists, journalists and medical workers. They come from multiple generations and a broad political spectrum – from moderate democrats to those advocating Hong Kong’s self-determination.
Some of the more well-known figures include Joshua Wong, 27, who rose to international fame as the face of Hong Kong’s yearslong student-led democracy protests, and Benny Tai, 59, a legal scholar and co-founder of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, and Claudia Mo, 66, a former journalist and lawmaker.
A large police presence was visible outside the courthouse on Wednesday morning, with officers patrolling the premises from all sides.
One supporter, Alexandra Wong, was led away by police for a search after waving a British flag outside the court.
The 67-year-old, known as ‘Grandma Wong’, was a fixture in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. She later returned to the court holding up a banner that read “Free 47.”
The 47 democracy supporters were arrested en masse in a raid in January 2021 and charged two months later. Thirty-one have pleaded guilty, a step that could lead to a reduced sentence in Hong Kong.
The West Kowloon Court began hearing their case in February this year. After 116 days of hearings, lawyers for the 16 defendants who pleaded not guilty have now returned to court to make their final attempt to vouch for the innocence of their clients.
As the hearing began Wednesday, supporters filled the courtroom’s public gallery. Some shouted the names of activists as they were brought into the dock. The defendants waved back in confirmation.
Among those pleading not guilty are former journalist Gwyneth Ho, 33, who livestreamed a mob attack on pro-democracy protesters at a subway station, and former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, 67, known by the nickname “Long Hair” and for his feisty , decades-long presence on the front lines of the city’s pro-democracy movement.
Meanwhile, prosecutors are expected to make the final part of their argument as to why the activists behind the dock should be convicted.
Still, a speedy verdict is unlikely as it is expected to take days for prosecutors and defense attorneys to complete their final speeches, covering more than a thousand pages of legal documents presented to the judges. Hong Kong judges will also need time to deliberate before returning with a verdict and their reasons.
The indictment centers on primaries that opposition activists and politicians held in July 2020 to select what they believed were the best candidates for the Legislative Council elections originally scheduled for later that year.
Such inter-political battles are common in democracies around the world. And while Hong Kong has never been a full democracy, minority opposition was tolerated for years after Britain’s handover to China in 1997.
But that once distinct landscape changed in the wake of both the massive and sometimes violent democracy protests of 2019 and a landslide victory for opposition figures in municipal elections at the end of the same year.
The pro-democracy camp had hoped to use the primaries to ensure it would win enough seats in the legislature to block bills.
Authorities in Hong Kong said the primaries were a “cruel plot” designed to “paralyze the government and undermine state power” by winning a majority of seats and using the mandate to block legislation.
Hong Kong’s democracy activists are no strangers to the courtroom. Many have previously been tried and served prison sentences for their activism. But the trial of the “Hong Kong 47” is the largest prosecution of democracy leaders under Beijing’s rule and is being closely watched both in the city and abroad.
The trial offers a new look at how Hong Kong’s legal system has changed under the national security law, which criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers and carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
In mainland China, the courts are tightly controlled by the ruling Communist Party and the conviction rate is above 99.9%. In contrast, Hong Kong follows a common law system that was kept intact after the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
But national security cases are setting new legal precedents.
The trial of the “Hong Kong 47” was heard without a jury, a departure from common law tradition, a power granted by Beijing-imposed law. It is chaired by a bench of three Supreme Court judges appointed by the city’s Chief Executive to hear national security matters. No national security cases have been tried before a jury in the city.
The law also imposes a higher bail threshold. Thirty-two suspects have been denied bail and have been in custody as of 2021 – a highly unusual practice for non-murder cases. Only 15 were granted bail, but two of them later had their applications withdrawn for breaching bail conditions.
It also allows cases to be transferred to the mainland for trial under extreme circumstances. The city’s Chief Executive John Lee was asked whether a recently proposed bipartisan bill in the US calling for sanctions against Hong Kong officials, judges and prosecutors involved in national security cases would result in the transfer of cases the border.
“I am confident that Hong Kong can tackle the national security risks we face, including some existing cases, especially the big cases,” Lee said, putting his trust in the city’s judges and law enforcement officials.
Legal scholars and Western governments have lamented that the national security law has dealt a blow to the city’s judicial independence, but authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have argued it is a matter of national security and have warned foreign parties against interfering in the internal affairs and judicial affairs of the city. system.
Before the trial began in February, the Hong Kong government called criticism of the trial “a scandalization of the criminal justice process” and “a blatant act that undermines Hong Kong’s rule of law.”
The Legislative Council elections – which the defendants had hoped to win by holding primaries – were postponed until 2021 due to health concerns cited by authorities during the coronavirus pandemic.
During the delay, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities rewrote the city’s election rules and introduced a stricter screening system to exclude candidates deemed “unpatriotic.”
Hong Kong’s Legislative Council currently has no pro-democracy lawmakers, nor will there be any pro-democracy candidates in the upcoming district council elections in December.