Hong Kong 47 Verdict: All but Two Democracy Figures Tried for Subversion Found Guilty

On Thursday, judges delivered their verdicts for 16 of the 47 Hong Kong democrats in the city’s largest national security trial to date. 31 of them had previously pleaded guilty, and among the remaining 16, 14 were convicted and two were acquitted. The entire group was arrested in January 2021 and later charged with subversion for participating in an unofficial primary ahead of the Legislative Council election. Their convictions, occurring just days after the first arrests under the city’s Article 23 national security law, underscore the shrinking space for democracy advocacy in Hong Kong. Jessie Pang and James Pomfret from Reuters reported on the verdicts, which may lead to sentences as high as life in prison:

The verdicts in Hong Kong’s biggest trial against the democratic opposition come more than three years after police arrested 47 democrats in dawn raids at homes across the city. They were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under a national security law imposed by China.

Sentencing will come at a later date for those found guilty, with prison terms ranging from three years to life. Thirty-one defendants pleaded guilty, and four of them have become prosecution witnesses.

[…] The defendants are accused of a “vicious plot” to paralyse government in the former British colony and force the city’s leader to resign through a pre-selection ballot in a July 2020 citywide election. The democrats maintain it was an unofficial attempt to select the strongest candidates in a bid to win a historic majority in Hong Kong’s legislature.

Summarising their verdict, Judges Andrew Chan, Alex Lee and Johnny Chan wrote that if the defendants had succeeded, it would have created “a constitutional crisis for Hong Kong” and led to “serious interfering in, disrupting or undermining the performance of duties and functions in accordance with the law by the (Hong Kong) government.” [Source]

The Hong Kong Free Press, which has a comprehensive archive on the Hong Kong 47’s three-year trial, reported that the city’s justice department will also attempt to appeal the two acquittals:

Lawrence Lau and Lee Yue-shun were acquitted by a panel of three High Court judges on Thursday morning – becoming the first two people tried under the Beijing-imposed security law to be cleared of their charges. 

Director of Public Prosecutions Maggie Yang on Thursday afternoon said that she had received instruction from Secretary for Justice Paul Lam that the justice department would seek to appeal the acquittal of Lau and Lee.

Representing Lee, barrister Steven Kwan said the judges had ruled that his client’s testimony had a “ring of truth” and the prosecution may only challenge the acquittal by raising a question of law. The lawyer said the court should consider the chances of success of the appeal before subjecting Lee to a list of bail conditions pending appeal. [Source]

Most of the defendants who were denied bail have spent over three years in pretrial detention. “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,” Ho-fung Hung, an expert on Hong Kong politics at Johns Hopkins University, told The New York Times. Jessie Yeung, Nectar Gan, and Chris Lau from CNN described how this national security case departed from past legal precedent and imported legal norms in mainland China:

Like all national security cases so far, the trial of the Hong Kong 47 was heard without a jury, deviating from the common law tradition, a power granted by the Beijing-imposed law. It was also presided over by a bench of three High Court Judges designated by the city’s Chief Executive to handle national security cases.

The law also places a higher threshold for bail. Thirty-two defendants have been denied bail and have been in detention since 2021 – a highly unusual practice for cases that do not involve murder. Only 15 were granted bail, but two of them had their application revoked later for breaching bail conditions.

The trial brought the imposition of mainland legal concepts, mainland law into the common law system into sharp relief, said John Burns, emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong.

“It’s absolutely clear that the national security law reduced the independence and the autonomy of the judiciary. No juries, much more difficult to get bail – those are all things that previously were determined by the judges.” [Source]

Eric Lai, a research fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, told the BBC that this was “a trial of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement,” and Sunny Cheung, who ran in the July 2020 primary but fled the city, added, “These verdicts effectively wipe out the whole political opposition in Hong Kong.” Christian Shepherd, Shibani Mahtani, and Vic Chiang from The Washington Post described how the verdict signals government’s resolve to root out any opposition:

“The ruling makes clear that the government will no longer tolerate any meaningful opposition,” said Alvin Cheung, assistant professor at Queen’s University in Canada and a former barrister in Hong Kong. “If the lawful use of legislative powers amounts to subversion, one has to wonder whether there remains any scope for dissent in the legislature.”

[…] Some worry, too, that the ruling could have implications beyond those defendants. Small shops, for example, allowed their spaces to be used as venues for the unofficial primary and could find themselves implicated.

“The authorities could use the case as jurisprudence to accuse people who [rented] their shops to become makeshift polling stations and volunteers who [ran] the stations as co-conspirators,” said Michael Mo, a former district councilor in Hong Kong who now lives in exile in the United Kingdom. Amid the increasingly tight environment for dissent in Hong Kong, “presumption of innocence is no longer there,” Mo said. [Source]

On Twitter, journalists and activists shared stories of some of the defendants:

The Associated Press collected critical reactions to the verdict by human rights groups and Western governments:

The conviction “marks a further deterioration of fundamental freedoms and democratic participation in Hong Kong,” the European Union’s foreign affairs office said. It added that the defendants “are being penalized for peaceful political activity that should be legitimate in any political system that respects basic democratic principles.”

[…] Sarah Brooks of Amnesty International called the convictions the “most ruthless illustration yet of how Hong Kong’s National Security Law is weaponized to silence dissent.” She said the convictions send a chilling message to anyone who opposes the actions of the government.

Maya Wang, the acting China director at Human Rights Watch, said the conviction shows “utter contempt” for both democratic political processes and the rule of law.

“Democracy is not a crime, regardless of what the Chinese government and its handpicked Hong Kong court may say,” she said. [Source]

Kaliz Lee, Brian Wong, and Jeffie Lam from the South China Morning Post summarized the next steps in this national security case:

After the verdict, the court is expected to set dates for hearing pleas for mitigation from anyone convicted, including the 31 accused who have decided to admit liability.

The defence is also expected to make submissions on the level of culpability of their clients and the appropriate sentencing range to be applied.

The national security law adopts a three-tier system in classifying offenders found guilty of subversion, with a “principal offender” liable to a minimum sentence of 10 years in jail.

A sentence of three to 10 years applies to an offender who “actively participates in the offence” and lesser penalties for “other participants”.

The mitigation hearings are expected to be held after Jimmy Lai Chee-ying’s national security trial is adjourned next week, as one of the judges is involved in both cases. [Source]


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