47 Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Figures Begin National Security Law Trial After Two Years in Detention

This week, a long-expected national security trial of 47 Hong Kong pro-democracy figures began. The group was arrested en masse in January 2021 and charged with subversion a month later for holding an unofficial primary in July 2020 (shortly after a draconian National Security Law was forced through the city’s legislature.) Only 13 of those arrested have been granted bail, while the other 34 have languished in pre-trial detention for over two years. At the West Kowloon Law Courts on Monday, 16 defendants were present to plead not guilty. All of them face sentences of up to life imprisonment

An estimated 600,000 voters participated in the unofficial primary in July 2020. Shortly thereafter, the primary was declared illegal and the Legislative Council elections, originally scheduled for September, were postponed until after the legislature altered the electoral rules to ensure that only “patriots” could run for office. The rescheduled vote drew the lowest turnout in Hong Kong’s history.

Most of the defendants are expected to receive prison sentences. K.K. Rebecca Lai, David Pierson, and Tiffany May from The New York Times provided an interactive list of all 47 defendants:

Elected lawmakers

Claudia Mo, 66

Leung Kwok-hung, 66

Helena Wong, 63

Kwok Ka-ki, 61

Wu Chi-wai, 60

Raymond Chan, 50

Andrew Wan, 53

Jeremy Tam, 47

Eddie Chu, 45

Lam Cheuk-ting, 45

Alvin Yeung, 41

Au Nok-hin, 35


Elected district officials

Gary Fan, 56

Andy Chui, 55

Lawrence Lau, 55

Ricky Or, 51

Andrew Chiu, 37

Roy Tam, 42

Sze Tak-loy, 40

Clarisse Yeung, 36

Ben Chung, 34

Jimmy Sham, 35

Kalvin Ho, 34

Cheng Tat-hung, 34

Henry Wong, 32

Kinda Li, 31

Sam Cheung, 29

Tiffany Yuen, 29

Lester Shum, 29

Lee Yue-shun, 29

Michael Pang, 28

Ng Kin-wai, 27

Fergus Leung, 25


Prominent activists

Carol Ng, 52

Winnie Yu, 35

Tam Tak-chi, 51

Gordon Ng, 44

Hendick Lui, 40

Ventus Lau, 29

Gwyneth Ho, 32

Mike Lam, 34

Frankie Fung, 27

Owen Chow, 26

Prince Wong, 25

Lau Chak-fung, 26

Benny Tai, 58

Joshua Wong, 26 [Source]

Over 200 people, many of them relatives or friends of the defendants, lined up outside the courthouse on Monday to attend the opening session. A small group of protesters displayed banners that read “Crackdown is shameless” and “Immediately release all political prisoners.” However, a number of people may have queued only to occupy seats so that other members of the public could not enter. A group of more than ten who arrived at 6:00 a.m. admitted they had no clue what the trial was about. Journalists from the Hong Kong Free Press reported that a group of women left the courthouse immediately after obtaining tickets, while another woman approached the journalists to ask where she could pick up payment for queuing and attending the morning session at the court.

The trial is expected to last three months and will be heard not by a jury, which has been a standard feature of the city’s common-law legal system for over 150 years, but by three hand-picked national security judges. In another break with precedent, the recently-reformed legal aid system has forced five defendants to forgo their lawyers of choice and to instead use assigned lawyers or pay for legal representation out of their own pocket. Four Hong Kong activists are also set to testify for the prosecution. Kelly Ho from Hong Kong Free Press described the prosecution’s opening arguments during the first two days:

A voting campaign advocated by a Hong Kong activist-scholar formed the “backbone” of an unofficial legislative primary election, prosecutors argued during the second day of a high-profile trial involving 47 prominent democrats.

[…] The defendants stand accused of seeking to abuse their powers as lawmakers, if elected, to indiscriminately veto budget bills, force the chief executive to resign, and drive the government into a shutdown.

[…] The prosecution on Tuesday continued to build their case, pointing to a “grand strategy of rebellion” proposed by former law professor Benny Tai. The scholar who taught at the University of Hong Kong admitted to the charge earlier. [Source]

Human rights groups challenged the unjust nature of the prosecution. “In a trial that lays bare the intrinsically abusive nature of the national security law, some of the defendants face up to life in prison simply for taking part in political party ‘primaries,’” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director Hana Young, adding, “They are forced to make the impossible decision between pleading guilty to a non-existent crime for a potential reduction in sentence, or fighting a losing battle under the unjust national security law.” One of the defendants who pleaded not guilty, former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, echoed that point: “I have no crime to answer for […] Universal suffrage is not a crime. It is not a crime to oppose totalitarianism.” 

Chan Ho-him from The Financial Times explored the political undercurrents to the prosecution:

Thomas Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, described the trial as having “all of the hallmarks of being a politically motivated prosecution of the city’s mainstream political opposition”.

“This case is significant for what it says about human rights in Hong Kong,” he said. “The fact that several dozen top opposition politicians could be soon headed to jail . . . speaks all too clearly about the damage that has been done to Hong Kong’s once-vibrant civic life.” [Source]

Helen Davidson and Verna Yu from The Guardian described how the trial lays bare Beijing’s determination to eliminate any meaningful, organized opposition in Hong Kong

Prof Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist formerly with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says that by elevating the pro-democracy politicians’ supposed crimes to the severity of “conspiracy to subvert state power”, Beijing is sending a message that opposition to the Hong Kong and Chinese governments merits “the harshest punishment”.

“It aims to intimidate the pro-democracy camp so they daren’t stay active as anything they do could constitute serious crime,” he says. “This is how Beijing’s political crackdown is reforming Hong Kong. And they will pull out all the stops to ensure there won’t be any voices of dissent.”

Eric Lai, a fellow at the Georgetown university centre for Asian law, says: “This trial is in effect not just for the 47 opposition leaders but also … a trial of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, where the majority of the population has supported their agenda over the last decade.” [Source]

Kathleen Magramo at CNN shared commentary from another expert who described the stark long-term implications of the trial

John Burns, emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the trial of the democrats is a “test of will” of Beijing’s capacity to completely wipe out organized opposition in Hong Kong.

Burns said arresting the democrats and pressing charges against them was meant to both intimidate and eliminate the opposition, either by chasing them out of Hong Kong into exile or by jailing them.

“It is a process of removing them. By shutting down political parties, shutting down trade unions, they are shutting down the basis of the support for organized opposition,” Burns said. [Source]



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