Hundreds of people gathered outside a Hong Kong court on Monday for the appearance of 47 democracy activists and politicians charged with subversion under the Beijing-imposed national security law, as the authorities intensify a crackdown under the legislation.
The group is accused of organising and participating in an unofficial series of primaries last July, which was an effort to select the strongest candidates for a legislative council election that the government later postponed, citing the coronavirus.
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Authorities claimed the poll was part of a plan to “overthrow” the government.
The cases have drawn criticism from the United States and New Zealand. A number of Western diplomats were among those seen queuing for seats in the court before the hearing began.
“We condemn the detention of and charges filed against pan-democratic candidates in Hong Kong’s elections and call for their immediate release,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Twitter. “Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes. The US stands with the people of Hong Kong.”
Also on Twitter, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the charges marked “an escalation in the application of the national security law” and that New Zealand was “concerned” and would be monitoring the situation.
The charges are the latest blow to the territory’s pro-democracy movement, which has been under pressure since the security legislation was imposed on the city last June.
Some elected legislators have been disqualified, while dozens of politicians and activists arrested and others have fled overseas.
Some legal experts noted that it seemed many of the allegations related to actions that took place before the security law, which was not supposed to be retroactive, was imposed on June 30 last year.
This is how long the queue is. Some tried to hold up their protest props for a moment while queueing. But they had to put them away eventually after police once again threatened to fine them for breaching the gathering ban pic.twitter.com/wykolcMlWB
— Chris Lau (@hkchrislau) March 1, 2021
More than 100 police officers were deployed outside the West Kowloon court as hundreds turned out to show their support – in one of the largest rallies since the coronavirus outbreak began.
“This is the most ridiculous arrest in the history of Hong Kong,” said Herbert Chow, 57, who was lining up outside the court and wearing a black face mask.
“But I have confidence in our judicial system to restore justice. It’s the last line of defence.”
The activists – 39 men and eight women aged between 23 and 64 – were charged on Sunday under the national security law which punishes what China broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
4) What the 47 did wrong according to police and prosecutors: pic.twitter.com/QmjhqV2e9Z
— Xinqi Su 蘇昕琪 (@XinqiSu) March 1, 2021
Among them was the organiser of the primary election and former law professor Benny Tai, as well as veteran activists Lester Shum, Joshua Wong and Owen Chow.
“I’ve been here since 5am. We have been taking shifts since yesterday. Our friend is among those charged,” said Kristine, 20. “I want to tell my friend that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for our city.”
Some supporters held up large yellow banners that said, “Release all political prisoners now.”
All seats for the hearing in the public gallery were taken and members of the public advised not to go to the court building, the Hong Kong Judiciary said in a statement, describing the situation as “very crowded.”