Trial of Hong Kong activists under China-imposed law enters home straight

Sixteen pro-democracy activists are charged under national security laws critics claim are designed to stifle dissent.

Hong Kong democrat Ricky Or
Hong Kong democrat Ricky Or arrives in court before closing arguments in Hong Kong's largest-ever national security trial [Peter Parks/AFP]

Hong Kong’s largest-ever state security trial has entered its closing phase, with pro-democracy activists linked to massive street protests in 2019 charged under a contentious China-imposed national security law (NSL).

The trial of the 16 activists, accused of conspiracy to commit subversion, began closing arguments on Wednesday. If convicted, they face life in prison.

The defendants are among 47 opposition activists, including elected lawmakers, unionists, and academics, who were rounded up by police in 2021, accused of plotting to sew a constitutional crisis and subvert the government.

The case has become a bellwether of Hong Kong’s political environment and is widely considered part of Beijing’s crackdown on the city’s once-vibrant pro-democracy movement.

The law, which criminalises secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city’s affairs, as well as terrorism, has been criticised as eroding the autonomy promised when the island returned to China in 1997. It has helped to put many pro-democracy politicians and activists in jail or exile.

What are the charges?

Throughout a 100-day trial, prosecutors have outlined what they say was a plan by the activists to subvert the government. They claim the activists aimed to organise an unofficial primary vote that would consolidate their power in the legislature.

Then, they would seek to “indiscriminately veto” government budgets to exert pressure for their demands, prosecutors say, with an ultimate aim to subvert state power or force Hong Kong’s leader to resign.

One of the activists’ key demands was an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality against thousands of Hong Kong protesters who took to the streets in 2019, in a crackdown watchdogs have decried as “brutal” and “unlawful”.

Prosecutor Jonathan Man argued the defendants’ acts clearly amounted to subversion even though there had been no actual violence.

“We are talking about a conspiracy to have legislators vetoing the budget indiscriminately,” Man said during closing arguments.

‘Right to fair trial’

Rights campaigners and experts have expressed concerns about the activists’ arrest and trial.

In October, a group of United Nations human rights experts said they were troubled by “the use of mass trials in NSL cases”, warning they could “negatively affect safeguards that ensure due process and the right to fair trial”.

Outside the court in advance of the closing debates, well-known activist Alexandra Wong was among those voicing support for the charged activists.

“I hope they can be released immediately,” said Wong. “The 47 only wanted to fight for genuine universal suffrage for us, [there were] no other motives, not to take the power.”

Most of the charged democrats have been detained for more than 1,000 days since February 28, 2021, on national security grounds, and were subjected to marathon bail hearings.

Thirty-one of the 47 charged have pleaded guilty, which could qualify them for reduced sentences. Only 16 are not pleading guilty, including former journalist Gwyneth Ho; activists Owen Chow and Gordon Ng; and ex-democratic lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung, Lam Cheuk-ting and Helena Wong.

Those who have pleaded guilty include former law professor Benny Tai and activist Joshua Wong, who will be sentenced after the trial. Four who pleaded guilty have become prosecution witnesses.

The last round of legal arguments – also known as the closing submissions – is expected to last 10 days before the court adjourns to consider the verdict.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies