A group of pro-democracy politicians and activists has been accused of subversion for organizing unofficial primaries.
The national security trial of dozens of people – from former pro-democracy lawmakers to activists and legal scholars – has begun in Hong Kong more than two years after they were arrested in pre-dawn police raids across the territory.
The defendants were accused of “subversion” for holding unofficial primaries to choose their candidates for the 2020 Legislative Council elections, which the government later postponed, blaming the coronavirus pandemic.
There was a heavy police presence, including officers with dogs, outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court building before proceedings began.
Some people started lining up for a place in the public gallery during the night, and the line wound around the building until morning.
“There is certainly a lot of sympathy for the people on trial,” said Al Jazeera’s Richard Kimber, reporting from Hong Kong. “There is certainly a lot of frustration that it has taken this long to get to this stage and that those who have been detained have not been able to speak since they were arrested.”
Among those charged are prominent activists Leung Kwok-hung, known as “Long Hair”, and Gordon Ng Ching-hang, who faces a potential life sentence as one of five people accused of being the “main organizer” of the primary.
“There is no crime to be held accountable for. It is not a crime to act against a totalitarian regime,” accused and former lawmaker Leung told the court.
Judge Andrew Chan responded that the hearing was a “solemn occasion” and asked for respect from the accused and members of the public.
Among those who have pleaded guilty are internationally known activists such as Joshua Wong, Claudia Mo, a former journalist turned lawmaker, and legal expert and former academic Benny Tai.
Together, the 47 defendants make up much of what remains of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leadership after mass protests calling for political reforms in 2019 ended inconclusively with the COVID-19 pandemic and a national security law pushing many into exile.
Prosecutors described the primaries – held so Democrats could nominate their strongest candidates for the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Legco) election – as a “vicious plot” to undermine the government and cause “mutual destruction” by seizing control of the city’s legislature.
“Candidating in the Legco elections is what kind of illegal means, what kind of threat of violence?” Chan Po-ying, president of the League of Social Democrats and Leung’s wife, said outside the court.
The trial is expected to last 90 days.
After its completion, the verdict will be pronounced against all the defendants.
Under the security law, which came into effect on June 30, 2020, the defendants face up to three years in prison for conspiracy to engage in subversive activities, between three and 10 years in prison for “active participation” in the conspiracy, and between 10 years and life in prison prison if they are considered “principal offenders”.
Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula that was supposed to guarantee its freedoms and an independent legal system for at least 50 years.
Beijing imposed a sweeping security law on the city after months of protests that began as mass marches against plans to allow extradition to the mainland and evolved into a pro-democracy campaign that has turned violent at times.
As well as subversion, the law punishes actions deemed “secession”, “collusion with foreign powers” and “terrorism” with life imprisonment.
A year after it was imposed, rights group Amnesty International said it had “decimated” freedoms in Hong Kong and put the territory on the path to becoming a police state.