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Hong Kong finds fourteen pro-democracy activists guilty of subversion

Hong Kong’s High Court on Thursday found 14 pro-democracy activists guilty of plotting to undermine state power and acquitted two others, in a landmark national security case that legal experts say has eroded the credibility of the city’s justice system.

Dozens of Hong Kong’s most prominent activists will now face lengthy prison sentences for their participation in the unofficial, non-violent 2020 primary, which was organized as a way to elect opposition candidates for parliamentary elections that were ultimately postponed. A total of 47 people were charged, and most have been in pre-trial detention for more than three years.

The verdicts were handed down on Thursday morning local time. According to lawyers, the verdict will follow at a later date. The remaining 31 defendants have not contested the charges.

Beijing imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong — which is supposed to enjoy a degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework — in 2020 after months of pro-democracy protests across the city in 2019.


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The trial, the largest national security case in the former British colony, was closely watched as a barometer of the extent to which the Beijing-imposed law would be used to punish opposition voices. Judges ruled that the perpetrators intended to undermine the authority of the Hong Kong government, and that their defense was invalid.

“The ruling makes it clear that the government will no longer tolerate any meaningful opposition,” said Alvin Cheung, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Canada and a former lawyer in Hong Kong. “If the legitimate use of legislative powers amounts to subversion, one must wonder whether there is still room for dissent in the legislature.”

Together, the defendants represented the full range of Hong Kong’s once-thriving pro-democracy opposition – from students to lawyers, veteran activists and relative newcomers, with views ranging from moderate to more radical. Their possible sentences range from three years to life in prison.

The trial is overseen by three judges picked by the government to hear national security cases, a departure from the tradition of Hong Kong’s common law system of jury trials. The judges cited the “involvement of foreign elements” as a reason for abandoning a jury trial.

Among those who pleaded not guilty were Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist who rose to prominence during the 2019 protests, and Leung Kwok-hung, a 68-year-old veteran political and social activist better known as “Long Hair.” Defendants who have pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to commit subversion” include 27-year-old activist Joshua Wong and legal scholar Benny Tai, as well as other politicians, former lawmakers and trade unionists.

The national security law, drafted by Beijing and passed without any consultation in Hong Kong, criminalizes broadly worded crimes such as “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces.” It has transformed Hong Kong and its institutions – including schools, media, legislature and courts – and undermined the territory’s promised autonomy, which was supposed to be maintained until 2047.

The unofficial primaries in 2020 was planned and organized before the introduction of the national security law that year. Tai — the legal scholar and activist who also helped launch protests in 2014 that culminated in a 79-day occupation of the city’s streets — and the others decided to go ahead with the vote after the Beijing-imposed law took effect become. They hoped to secure a majority in the legislature for pro-democracy candidates.

More than 600,000 voters took part in the 2020 citywide primaries, but the executive subsequently decided to postpone the legislative elections, citing issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. Critics have argued that the plaintiff’s case is largely based on hypothetical premises, as the defendants had no chance to run for parliamentary elections, let alone come to power and then undermine the system, as it is claimed.

Some also worry that the ruling could have consequences beyond those defendants. For example, small stores allowed their spaces to be used as locations for the unofficial primaries and could become involved.

“Authorities could use the case as case law to accuse people who (rented out) their shops to become makeshift polling stations, and volunteers who (managed) the polling stations as co-conspirators,” said Michael Mo, a former district councilor in Hong Kong , who now lives in exile in Britain. Amid the increasingly tight environment for dissent in Hong Kong, “there is no innocence anymore,” Mo said.

Last March, Hong Kong’s legislature, stripped of opposition, unanimously passed a new package of domestically focused national security laws known as Article 23, which further squeezed what little room remained for criticism and civil liberties .

Ahead of Thursday’s verdict, one of the two acquitted suspects, Lee Yue Shun, wrote in a Facebook post that the verdict would do little to change the reality of life in Hong Kong.

“Regardless of the outcome, maintaining the legitimacy of the way of life of the people of Hong Kong already faces the most difficult challenges on a daily basis,” he wrote.