trial of dozens in pro-democracy movement set to begin under national security laws

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One of the most important national security processes in the Chinese government’s crackdown on Hong Kong begins Monday, two years after many of the most prominent government critics were first taken into custody.

The case concerns the Hong Kong 47 – a group of pro-democracy lawmakers, politicians, activists and community workers who have been charged with conspiracy to subvert state power under the national security law.

They are accused of holding unofficial pre-election primaries – a move authorities say is subversive. The primaries – which had been a common feature of elections in the past – aimed to select the strongest candidates to face the pro-Beijing incumbent parties.

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Their aim was to secure a majority of the seats in the Legislative Council. But prosecutors have claimed that the plan announced by the primaries — to use this majority to block legislation and veto budgetary bills — was a “massive and well-organized plan” to paralyze the government and destabilize Beijing’s government. appointed leader of the city.

“The whole case rests on hypothetical actions the defendants might take in the future,” said William Nee, a researcher with US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “It is a clear violation of the right to run for public office under international law.”

The persecution of this group, made up of most of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy supporters, is at the center of the government’s crackdown on the opposition, observers said.

Professor Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist formerly affiliated with Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says elevating the supposed crimes of the pro-democracy politicians to the seriousness of “conspiracy to subvert state power” sends a signal issued that the opposition to the Hong Kong and China governments deserve “the harshest punishment”.

“It is designed to intimidate the pro-democracy camp so that they do not dare to remain active, as anything they do could constitute a serious crime,” he says. “This is how Beijing’s political action is reshaping Hong Kong. And they will do everything they can to make sure there are no dissent.”

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong and other winners of the unofficial Democratic primary pose in July 2020

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, left, and other winners of the unofficial Democratic primaries pose in July 2020. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Eric Lai, a fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Asian Law, says: “This trial is, in fact, not only for the 47 opposition leaders, but also … a trial against the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, where the majority of the population has supported their agenda for the past decade.”

At least 31 of those on trial have already confessed. Sixteen are expected to plead not guilty. Four defendants charged with being “chief offenders” face life in prison. The court has been informed that three persons will testify before the prosecution.

Doubts about due process

The primaries were held in July 2020, just days after the implementation of the national security law. An estimated 600,000 people showed up, seen by some as an act of defiance against the government’s crackdown.

Days later, the Chinese government declared the primaries illegal. Nearly six months later, on the morning of January 6, 2021, police arrested dozens of organizers and participants in a series of house searches.

The election – which the 47 hoped to win – was postponed, ostensibly due to Covid. They were finally held after a “Patriots only” overhaul of the electoral system, which effectively made it impossible for opposition candidates to run and win.

Among those arrested in January were co-organizers of the primary and well-known activists, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Benny Tai, a lawyer who was also an organizer of the 2014 “umbrella movement.” Claudia Mo , an outspoken pro-democracy legislator and founder of the Citizens’ Party, is also part of the group. She resigned from parliament in November 2020, along with the entire pro-democracy bloc, in protest of Beijing’s ordered disqualification of four colleagues. James To and Lam Cheuk-ting, who also resigned from parliament, were also arrested because of the primaries.

Younger defendants include Joshua Wong, an activist who has already served jail time during the 2019 protests, and Gwyneth Ho, a young journalist who formerly worked at Stand News and was a popular candidate in the primary.

Most of the detainees – 34 of the 47 – were not granted bail and have been in prison for more than two years.

Prosecutors allege the pro-democracy figures were inspired by Tai, who was accused of manipulating the electoral system to undermine the government.

“The end game… was to trigger an acute crisis in Hong Kong that led to bloody action and ultimately to lobby foreign countries to impose political and economic sanctions on the mainland and the city,” the summary of the report said. case of the prosecutors, quoted in the South China Morning Na.

“The disputed goal was a clear attempt to undermine state power, cripple the functioning of the government by disrupting the normal and systematic functioning of Legco, and ultimately to overthrow the government as a whole.”

In September, a first group of 29 had tried to be sentenced earlier, arguing that some may have already served the sentences they would ultimately receive. But prosecutors told the high court to wait until after the trial so they could see the full scope of the defendants’ alleged conspiracy and guilt, Hong Kong Free Press reported.

Activists and legal scholars have said the national security law has created a parallel legal system, with less oversight and fewer rights and protections for defendants. Cases under the National Security Law are heard by specific judges selected by the Chief Executive Officer and can be sent to mainland China for trial if necessary. Due to the continued persecution of media magnate and activist Jimmy Lai, the government and courts have ensured that foreign lawyers can be barred from representing clients.

The trial of the 47, which has faced significant and repeated delays, will also be conducted by judges alone, after Hong Kong’s Justice Minister Paul Lam declared that the “personal safety of the jurors” would be at risk, saying that there were “foreign elements”. involved in the case.

Eric Lai says the involvement of the executive in removing the jury from this trial, and the lengthy pre-trial detention of most of the defendants, are among several aspects of the case that “raised doubts about due process and due process “.

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