Hong Kong’s largest national security case has been sent for trial at the High Court, after 15 months in pre-trial procedures during which most of the 47 defendants were remanded in custody.
Under the security law, which Beijing imposed in 2020 following huge, sometimes violent democracy protests the year before, the pro-democracy figures are charged with “conspiracy to subversion” for organising an unofficial primary election to choose their best candidates for the Legislative Council election, which was then postponed.
Subversion is one of the four major crimes under the security law and carries a maximum punishment of life in prison.
The defendants, aged between 24 and 66, include democratically elected lawmakers and district councillors, as well as unionists, academics and others, whose political stances range from modest reformists to radical localists.
Most of the pre-trial hearings over the past 15 months, although held in an open court, have been subject to reporting restrictions – with the court repeatedly refusing applications from defendants and journalists for the curbs to be lifted.
Family members and legal representatives told AFP news agency that the lack of transparency around the proceedings had made the defendants “frustrated and depleted”, and allowed the prosecution to “move the goalposts”.
After a three and a half day hearing that began on Wednesday and Thursday last week and finished on Tuesday, all but one of the 47 defendants was committed to the higher court by Principal Magistrate Peter Law, one of a number of judges designated to hear national security cases.
Last Wednesday, Law announced that 17 defendants had been committed for trial.
They included veteran activists “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, barrister Lawrence Lau, and journalist-turned-activist Gwyneth Ho.
Twenty-nine others – including legal scholar Benny Tai, who was also one of the leaders of the Occupy Central movement in 2014 – were committed for trial on Monday and Tuesday.
Defendants who plead not guilty are committed for trial, and those who plead guilty face sentencing, according to the Magistrates Ordinance.
The one outstanding defendant will join the group later after further proceedings before the magistrate.
More than 180 people have been arrested since the security law came into force two years ago, mostly activists, unionists and journalists, and 115 have been prosecuted.
Three men have been convicted and sentenced to jail for 43 months to nine years. One of them sought to appeal his 69-month sentence on Tuesday, with the court reserving judgement until early September.
The 47 defendants form the largest group in one single case under the law.
Authorities say the security law has successfully returned stability to the territory following the 2019 protests. Rights groups say the law has “decimated” Hong Kong’s freedoms, which China had pledged to respect for at least 50 years after taking control of the territory in 1997.