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PoliticsHong Kong

Hong Kong: Landmark national security trial begins

February 6, 2023

Dozens of pro-democracy figures have been charged with "conspiracy to commit subversion" and are facing possible life sentences. Their trial opened two years after the initial arrests.

People queue outside the court
The case will be heard by three High Court judges designated under the national security lawImage: Tyrone Siu/REUTERS

Hong Kong's largest national security trial of 47 pro-democracy advocates began on Monday.

The prominent figures have been accused of "conspiracy to commit subversion" related to their involvement in an unofficial primary election in July 2020. If convicted, they risk life sentences.

The trial will focus primarily on the 16 who have pleaded not guilty to the charges. The other 31 have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced after the trial.

In a rare protest, supporters carrying a banner that read "crackdown is shameless" and "immediately release all political prisoners" were seen before the court convened.

Hong Kong's judicial independence under scrunity

Experts say this case will highlight Hong Kong's judicial independence under Beijing's national security law.

Chinese and Hong Kong authorities credit the law with bringing stability to the region after it was roiled by huge pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Others decry the law for itspunitive measures that punishes what it calls subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with up to life in prison.

Western countries have called the 2020 law a tool to crush dissent in the Asian financial hub.

The law has managed to transform the former British colony into something closer to the authoritarian mainland.

"This trial is not simply a trial against the 47 opposition leaders, but also a trial for the population, who has been supporting the pro-democracy movement for decades," Eric Lai, a fellow at Georgetown Center for Asian Law in Washington, told Reuters news agency.

'We're not guilty at all'

In a break from the city's tradition, the defendants were refused a jury trial. The case will be heard by three High Court judges designated under the national security law.

Three defendants are expected to testify against the other defendants in the trial likely to last 90 days, according to the prosecution.

The defendants represent a cross-section of the opposition in Hong Kong, including notable legal scholar Benny Tai, activists Owen Chow, Joshua Wong, and Lester Shum, as well as former lawmakers Claudia Mo, Au Nok-hin, and Leung Kwok-hung.

"The actual people who need to go on trial are absolutely not us," Chow said in September. "We're not guilty at all."

What is the trial about?

The group was arrested in dawn raids in January 2021 and charged in March 2021 after organizing an unofficial primary a year earlier to select opposition candidates.

Their goal was to gain control of the city's partly elected legislature, which would enable the bloc to forward the demands of the demonstrators and maybe compel Hong Kong's leader, the Beijing-approved John Lee Ka-ch,i to quit.

Authorities accused them oftrying to bring down the government.

More than 610,000 people voted in the primary, disregarding official warnings.

Later, the Hong Kong government abandoned the official election, and Beijing instituted a new political system that rigorously scrutinized candidates.

ss/es (Reuters, AFP)