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Hong Kong Convicts 14 Democracy Activists in Largest National Security Trial

Dozens of Hong Kong’s most well-known democracy activists and leaders now face prison sentences, in some cases for perhaps as long as life, after a court issued a verdict Thursday in the city’s largest national security trial.

Their offense: holding a primary election to improve their chances in citywide polls.

The authorities have accused 47 pro-democracy figures, including Benny Tai, a former law professor, and Joshua Wong, a protest leader and founder of a student group, of conspiracy to commit subversion. Thirty-one of those defendants have since pleaded guilty.

On Thursday, judges picked by Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader convicted 14 of the remaining activists and acquitted two others.

The convictions show how the authorities have used the sweeping powers of a national security law imposed by Beijing to quash political dissent in the Chinese territory. The punishments that are expected to follow in the coming weeks or months would effectively turn the vanguard of the city’s opposition, a hallmark of its once-vibrant political scene, into a generation of political prisoners.

Some are former lawmakers who joined politics after Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule by the British in 1997. Others are activists and legislators who have advocated self-determination for Hong Kong with more confrontational tactics. Several, like Mr. Wong, who rose to fame as a teenage activist, were among the students leading large street occupations in 2014 for the right to vote.

Most of the defendants have spent at least the last three years in detention ahead of and during the 118-day trial.

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

The pro-democracy activists have said they were merely defending the rights of Hong Kong residents in the face of Beijing’s tightening control over the city. Public alarm over shrinking freedoms in Hong Kong had set off enormous, at times violent, protests in 2019 and early 2020, mounting the greatest challenge to Chinese authority since 1989.

In response, China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, handing the authorities a powerful tool to round up critics like the 47 people on trial, including Mr. Tai, the law professor who had been a leading strategist for the pro-democracy camp, and Claudia Mo, a former lawmaker and veteran campaigner.

The authorities charged them with “conspiracy to commit subversion” over their efforts in 2020 to organize or take part in an unofficial primary election ahead of a vote for seats on the Legislative Council.

In the past, pro-democracy activists had held primary elections to select candidates to run for the election of the city’s leader, with no issue, 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 Hong Kong’s political environment: Free election, even the pretension of a free election, is gone,” Professor Hung said.

The case the Hong Kong authorities have made against the activists is complicated, and based largely on a scenario that hasn’t happened. Prosecutors say the unofficial primary election was problematic because the pro-democracy bloc was using it to win a majority in the legislature with which they would attempt to subvert the government. They accuse the activists of plotting to use such a majority to “indiscriminately” veto the government budget, ultimately forcing the city’s leader at the time to resign.

The judges ruled that the plan, if carried out as the defendants had intended, would have “led to a constitutional crisis,” amounting to subversion under the national security law.

The authorities postponed the election, citing the pandemic. By the time the vote was held in late 2021, the activists had been arrested and the electoral rules had been rewritten to effectively disqualify pro-democracy candidates.

The trial of the 47 began in February of last year, after lengthy procedural delays.

Of the defendants, 31 entered guilty pleas, including Mr. Wong, who since 2020 has served prison sentences in other cases related to his activism. Four of them — Au Nok-hin, a former lawmaker; Andrew Chiu and Ben Chung, former district officials; and Mike Lam, a grocery chain owner with political ambitions — testified for the prosecution in exchange for a reduced sentence.

The 14 defendants who were convicted on Thursday included Leung Kwok-hung, a veteran activist known as “Long Hair” who pushed for welfare policies for the old and the poor; Lam Cheuk-ting, an anti-corruption investigator turned legislator; and Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist. The two defendants who were acquitted were Lawrence Lau, a barrister, and Lee Yue-shun, a social worker.

Since they were arrested en masse, 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 the behest of Beijing.

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

In the trial of the 47 democrats, the prosecution and defense argued over whether nonviolent acts, such as the primary election, could be considered an act of subversion. The national security law defines a person guilty of subversion as someone who organizes or takes action “by force or threat of force or other unlawful means.”

The defense had argued that they had not engaged in violence, and had believed that the primary election did not violate laws, and therefore was planned openly. The prosecutor, Jonathan Man, argued that the language should be given a “wide interpretation” to ensure its effectiveness.

The drawn-out legal process and lengthy detention have come at a heavy personal cost for the defendants. One former legislator, 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 being put on hold — these are some of the best and brightest of Hong Kong, 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 Center for Asian Law. “A truly sad story.”

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

Eva Pils, a law professor at King’s College London, said that the authorities would most likely use the outcome of the trial to make examples of those who crossed Beijing’s lines. But the chilling effect of the trial would ultimately be detrimental to the government, Professor Pils argued.

“By creating more repression, fear and self-censorship, it is depriving itself of the opportunity to learn what Hong Kongers really think about its decisions,” she said. “I think that is part of what will make it such an important case in Hong Kong’s history.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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