Hong Kong rules against Democrats in biggest national security trial

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

The 47 democracy activists and opposition leaders in the trial – including Benny Tai, a former law professor, and Joshua Wong, a protest leader and founder of a student group – face jail time, in some cases The case may be up to life imprisonment. Their offense: holding a primary to improve their chances in citywide polls.

Most of the defendants were detained at least three years ago and during the 118-day trial. On Thursday, judges chosen by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader began delivering verdicts on 16 of them who pleaded not guilty. The convicts will be sentenced at a later date, along with 31 others who have pleaded guilty.

Convictions are expected and subsequent sentences will be a game-changer vanguard of the city’s oppositiona mark of its once vibrant political scene, became a generation of political prisoners.

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

“The message from the authorities is clear: Any opposition activity, even the peaceful kind, will not be tolerated,” said Ho-fung Hung, an expert on Hong Kong politics at Johns Hopkins University. something else”.

Most have sought to protect the rights of Hong Kong residents in the face of Beijing’s tight control over the city. Public alarm over shrinking freedoms in Hong Kong sparked massive, sometimes violent protests in 2019 and early 2020, posing the biggest challenge yet to Chinese authorities since 1989.

In response, China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, giving authorities a powerful tool to arrest critics like the 47 democrats on trial, including Mr. Tai, a law professor who was a top strategist for the pro-democracy camp, and Claudia Mo, a former congressman and veteran campaigner.

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

Professor Hung said that in the past, democracy activists held primary elections to choose candidates to run for city leadership, without any problems.

Professor Hung said: “The fact that they were arrested, convicted and even imprisoned long before the verdict shows a fundamental change in Hong Kong’s political environment: Free elections, even Even the hypothesis of a free election is gone.”

The case that Hong Kong authorities have brought against the activists is complex and largely based on a scenario that has never happened. Prosecutors say the unofficial primary is problematic because the pro-democracy bloc is using it to win a majority in the legislature. They accused activists of plotting to use that majority to “indiscriminately” veto the government budget, eventually forcing the city leader at the time to resign.

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

Of the 47 defendants, 31 have pleaded guilty, including Mr. Wong, who has been serving a prison sentence since 2020 in other cases related to his activities. Four of them – Au Nok-hin, a former parliamentarian; Andrew Chiu and Ben Chung, former district officials; and Mike Lam, a grocery store chain owner with political ambitions – testified for the prosecution to get their sentences reduced.

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

Since their mass arrests, the city has completely eliminated protest voices from its political institutions. Only one approve of “patriots” is allowed to run for the city legislature in 2021. And in March, Hong Kong passes its own national security law at extraordinary speed, at Beijing’s behest.

The new laws, known collectively as the National Security Protection Ordinance, criminalized broadly defined crimes such as “foreign interference” and “theft of state secrets,” with penalties Punishment includes life imprisonment. On Tuesday, the city arrested six people under the new security law for allegedly publishing “seditious material” online. The arrests come days before the 35th anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. One of those arrested was activist Chow Hang Tung, who organized a group that held vigils in memory of the Tiananmen victims.

Observers say the political cases are testing the city’s much-vaunted judicial independence. ONE Trial of Jimmy Lai, a media mogul and outspoken critic of Beijing, is underway. Many weeks ago, one The court has granted the government’s request to ban a popular protest songcause concerns about speech.

During the trial of 47 Democrats, the prosecution and defense argued over whether nonviolent actions, such as primaries, could be considered subversive . The national security law defines a person committing the crime of subversion as someone who organizes or carries out actions “by force or threat of force or other unlawful means.”

The defense has argued that it did not participate in the violence and believes that the primary election did not violate the law and was therefore planned in an open manner. The prosecutor, Jonathan Man, argued that the language should be given a “Extensive explanation” to ensure its effectiveness.

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

Thomas Kellogg said: “Almost all of them are seeing their own lives put on hold – these are some of the best and brightest in Hong Kong, all watching ​their careers are cut short as they endure months behind bars.”, executive director of the Georgetown Asian Law Center. “A really sad story.”

During the sentencing process, which will likely take place several months later, the 47 defendants are expected to be classified by grade, legal scholars said. Those deemed “principal offenders” can be sentenced to between 10 years and life in prison. “Active participant,” three to 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 that authorities will likely use the outcome of the trial to make an example of those who have crossed Beijing’s boundaries. Professor Pils argued that the chilling effect of the trial would ultimately be detrimental to the government.

“By creating more repression, fear and self-censorship, they are depriving themselves of the opportunity to find out what Hong Kong people really think about their decisions,” she said. “I think that’s part of what made it such an important case in Hong Kong’s history.”

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