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Hong Kong: 14 democracy activists convicted in landmark case

May 30, 2024

The verdict comes several years after a pro-democracy movement sparked major protests in the city against a Beijing-imposed national security law. Only two of the accused were acquitted.

Police officers and protestors stand outside the Hong Kong High Court
14 pro-democracy campaginers were found gulty and two were acquitted under the national security lawImage: Tyrone Siu/REUTERS

Hong Kong's High Court on Thursday found 14 activists guilty of "subversion" in the city's biggest trial against pro-democracy campaigners since China imposed a national security law on the semi-autonomous territory. 

Those who were found guilty included former lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung, Lam Cheuk-ting, Helena Wong and Raymond Chan. Two former district councilors Lee Yue-shun and Lawrence Lau were acquitted.

They are among the 47 protesters and activists, known as the Hong Kong 47, who were charged in 2021 under the national security law with "conspiracy to commit subversion."

While 16 of them maintained their innocence throughout the trial, the remaining 31 pleaded guilty, hoping for more lenient sentences.

Those found guilty could face from three years to life in jail. The sentencing is expected later this year. 

What were the activists accused of?

The defendants were accused of trying to launch an unofficial pre-selection ballot ahead of a July 2020 city election that prosecutors called a "vicious plot" to paralyze the government. 

The court said the activists had attempted to secure a legislative majority in order to veto budgets, which could have led to the dissolution of the legislature. 

The democrats maintained their unofficial primary in June 2020 was an unofficial attempt to shortlist the strongest candidates who would then run in the official election. The bid drew a high turnout, and the pro-democracy camp at that time hoped they could secure a
legislative majority, which would allow them to press for the 2019 protest demands.

In 2020, China imposed the national security law on semi-autonomous Hong Kong in response to mass pro-democracy protests that erupted in 2019 over a proposal to amend extradition rules, and other incursions from Beijing over the city's semi-autonomy. 

The laws contravened many civil liberties guaranteed when Hong Kong was handed back to China by the British in 1997. This includes rights to assembly, a free press and criminalizing opposition to the central government as "subversion." 

Hong Kong court convicts 14 pro-democracy activists

Judges Andrew Chan, Alex Lee and Johnny Chan released a statement summarizing their verdict that said the 14 defendants had planned to undermine "the power and authority of both the government and chief executive. In our view... that would create a constitutional crisis for Hong Kong."

It was not immediately clear if they would appeal as the court adjourned until the afternoon session.

Most of the defendants have been in jail since they were first brought to court in March 2021.

The trial was held without a jury and the judges were chosen from a pool handpicked by Hong Kong's leader John Lee.

The Reuters news agency spoke to the wife of Leung, who at 68 is the oldest defendant.

"Although he might not be well emotionally and still not yet adapted to prison life... he always told me that he's innocent," she said.

Supporters of the defendants queued overnight to be in the courtroom but attempts at protest were quickly shut down by police.

International condemnation

The British government asked for the 14 convicted pro-democracy campaigners to be released, and called on Hong Kong authorities to end all prosecutions under the national security law.

"Today’s verdict will only further tarnish Hong Kong's international reputation. It sends a message that Hong Kongers can no longer safely and meaningfully participate in peaceful political debate," Britain's Minister for the Indo-Pacific Anne Marie Trevelyan said in a statement.

People queue up outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts building, before the verdict of the pro-democracy activists, charged under the national security law, in Hong Kong, China, May 30
People queued up outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts building before the verdictImage: Tyrone Siu/REUTERS

Australia voiced "strong objections" and deep concern over the conviction, vowing to raise the fate of a condemned Australian at the "highest levels".

"We are deeply concerned by the verdicts handed down today," Foreign Minister Penny Wong said, "including a guilty verdict for Australian citizen Mr Gordon Ng." 

Diplomatic officers from the consulates of Britain, France, the European Union and Italy were present in court on Thursday.

The British Consulate-General told AFP the UK was concerned "over the erosion of meaningful political opposition in Hong Kong."

They began attending court proceedings following accusations that the trial was politically motivated and joined calls for the immediate release of the accused. 

China responded by telling international critics to "stop interfering."

"We advise individual countries and politicians to face reality squarely, uphold an objective and impartial stance... and stop interfering in Hong Kong's affairs and China's internal affairs immediately," the spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry office in Hong Kong said.

How China’s crackdown has changed Hong Kong

km, wmr/fb (Reuters, AP)