After joint 108 years on remand, Hong Kong 47 face security trial verdict

The trial of prominent democracy activists and politicians, who were arrested in 2021, is the largest under the security law.

A police officer cordoning an area with red tape during one of the court hearings for the 47. There is a large group of supporters behind.
Large numbers of supporters turned out for the start of the trial in February 2023 [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

A verdict is finally looming in Hong Kong’s longest running and largest national security trial of 47 pro-democracy legislators and political activists, with the defendants having together logged 39,000 days or some 108 years on remand even before the sentencing phase of the trial begins.

The group was first arrested by the territory’s national security police in a pre-dawn crackdown on January 6, 2021, for allegedly conspiring to commit “subversion” by organising an unofficial primary election to choose pro-democracy candidates in July 2020. The defendants include the alleged organisers as well as would-be candidates who hoped to win the primary and contest then semi-democratic legislative council elections, which were eventually cancelled, with prosecutors claiming it was an attempt to “overthrow” the government.

Two-thirds of the defendants have been in remand since a marathon bail hearing in March 2021.

On Thursday, a panel of three handpicked national security judges will start delivering their verdict for the 16 defendants who pleaded “not guilty”.

The decision follows a lengthy trial that ran from February to December 2023 and was delayed not only by outbreaks of COVID-19 but also by the sheer logistics of organising such an enormous undertaking.

Despite the long wait for the verdict, the conclusion seems to be foregone said Eric Lai, a research fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law in the United States.

Lai said that as early as 2020, Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong had already expressed its displeasure with the primary vote and accused the participants of “subversion”, setting the tone for the government response to come. In one sweep, national security police were able to silence an entire generation of pro-democracy activists and legislators, he added.

“Most of these defendants are not merely individual participants, they are former lawmakers, former political party figures and key figures in the opposition force,” Lai told Al Jazeera. “They were the icons of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in the past. During this trial, it seems very possible that they will get convicted under the manuscript of Beijing.”

Voters queue up to vote during primary elections aimed for selecting democracy candidates, in Hong Kong
More than 600,000 people turned out to Vote in July 2020 when the pro-democracy camp staged primaries to choose its strongest candidates for the Legislative Council election, which was later postponed [Jessie Pang/Reuters]

At issue is whether the 47 planned to use their positions in the legislative council – if they won the election – to veto Hong Kong’s annual budget, in a move that would have forced the city’s top leader to step down and dissolve the legislature.

At the time, there was some measure of competition for seats in the legislature with some members chosen through direct election (the rules were changed in 2021 to require the pre-vetting of all candidates to ensure only “patriots” could contest).

A record number of at least 600,000 Hong Kong people turned out for the unofficial primaries, with the large queues seen as a rebuke of the Hong Kong government.

A year earlier in 2019, the city had been swept by mass anti-government protests. The democratic camp had swept the board in that year’s district council elections and hoped to build on that support in the Legislative Council. With the protesters’ demands largely unmet, vetoing the budget seemed like one of the few tools left to the opposition, and according to defendant Gwenyth Ho, a former reporter, it was their constitutional right under Hong Kong’s Basic Law. 

For their involvement, defendants face a maximum of life imprisonment under the security law imposed by Beijing in 2020, although this charge is reserved for “primary offenders” or anyone prosecutors have identified as a leader.

Lower-level “offenders” face between three and 10 years for “active” participation, while “other participants” could be looking at as long as three years in jail.

Pleading guilty usually earns defendants a reduced sentence, but it is unclear whether the national security court will follow the convention.

Legislators, nurses, lawyers

Ranging from their late 20s to their late 60s, the 47 include some of Hong Kong’s highest profile opposition figures including Benny Tai, 59, a legal scholar and one of the alleged organisers; democracy activist Joshua Wong, 27; former journalist and legislator Claudia Mo, 67; and lifelong activist Leung Kwok-hung, 68, popularly known as “Long Hair”.

Other defendants have also dedicated their lives to public service but have maintained lower profiles. They include 47-year-old Gordon Ng, a dual Australian citizen who has been portrayed by prosecutors as the election organiser and has been repeatedly denied Australian consular assistance. He is among the 16 who pleaded not guilty.

The other three named organisers, legislators Au Nok-him, 33; Andrew Chiu, 38; and Ben Chung, 35, all pleaded guilty and testified as witnesses for the prosecution in a move seen as part of an effort to obtain a reduced sentence.  Mike Lam, 35, a businessman and member of the 47, also testified for the prosecution.

Other defendants include Winnie Yu, 37, a Hong Kong nurse, who pleaded not guilty and has been detained since 2021. Before then, she helped organise hospital staff protests in early 2020 to demand the city close its border with China following the outbreak of COVID-19.

Owen Chow, 26, an activist and former nursing student, and the former reporter Gwyneth Ho, 33, both pleaded not guilty and were some of the few defendants of the 47 who testified at the trial in their own defence.

During her trial last July, Ho reportedly told prosecutors the 47 expected that pro-democracy candidates might be disqualified from running for office after the election primary – but it was still worth the effort because Hong Kong people could “build something new,” according to Hong Kong Free Press.

“I believe that most Hongkongers knew deep down in their hearts that fighting for democracy under the Chinese Communist regime has always been a fantasy,” Ho reportedly told the court in Cantonese.

She also said the disqualifications could create a “legitimacy crisis” for Beijing overseas because it would appear to be going against the desires of the Hong Kong people.

Hong Kong barrister and former district councillor Lawrence Lau Wai-chung, 56, pleaded not guilty and defended himself on the stand. Before his arrest, he helped to defend young protesters arrested during the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. He was also one of the few defendants granted bail.

Clarisse Yeung, 37, a former district councillor with a background in visual arts, pleaded not guilty and was among those who declined to testify. She was also taken to hospital with exhaustion during the three-day March 2021 bail hearing and, like Lau, was granted bail.

Barrister and pro-democracy activist Lawrence Lau arriving at court. He is wearing a three piece suit with blue tie and a matching silk handkerchief in his top pocket.
Lawyer and pro-democracy activist Lawrence Lau, (centre), was one of the few to get bail. He pleaded not guilty and defended himself during the trial [Jerome Favre/EPA]

Even after the verdict is read, the trial of the 47 will not be over. The trial will then proceed to its sentencing and mitigation phase when judges will consider the circumstances of each defendant.

Lai told Al Jazeera it could take up to six months to reach its full conclusion, and any defendants out on bail may have it revoked.

Once they are sentenced, defendants will not be able to earn time off for “good behaviour” thanks to recent changes in Hong Kong law. Earlier this year, the city adopted a domestic version of the national security bill, known colloquially as Article 23, which now gives greater oversight to the correctional department in national security cases. It will apply retroactively to cases before the law was passed, according to leader John Lee.

The 2020 national security law criminalised offences deemed secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. Article 23 expands on those charges and adds new ones like theft of state secrets, sedition, insurrection, and treason. Hong Kong made its first arrests under that law earlier this week.

The Georgetown Center for Asia Law, which is keeping track of the cases in Hong Kong courts, has said 286 individuals were arrested by national security police between July 2020 and December 31, 2023. Of them, 156 have been charged under the national security law or a recently revived law against sedition that dates back to the British colonial era.

The mass trial has already damaged Hong Kong’s reputation as the “freest” city in Asia, but its effects will go far deeper in the long term, warned Kevin Yam, a former Hong Kong lawyer and democracy activist who now lives in Australia.  The city has seen an exodus of foreign companies and financial institutions since the pandemic – when authorities imposed debilitating health regulations – and the imposition of the security law.

While some have started coming back, the trial should give them pause about the quality of governance, according to Yam, who is also wanted by Hong Kong police for national security “crimes”, offering a one million Hong Kong dollar ($128,888) “reward” for anyone who provides information leading to his arrest.

“International businesses ought to be very worried about the fact that the opposition has been wiped out of the Hong Kong political scene with cases like this, the quality of governance and accountability has just gone through the floor,” he told Al Jazeera.

Recent blunders include an attempt at changing the city’s rubbish collection schedule, to an ill-fated attempt to lure football star Lionel Messi to play in Hong Kong on untenable terms. Earlier this year, city officials also welcomed an investor who claimed to be related to Dubai’s ruling family without properly vetting his credentials.

Riot police detain a woman in the midst of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong
The 2019 protesters accused the police of brutality and demanded an inquiry [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

As Hong Kong police dedicate resources to prosecuting political offences, ordinary crime is also increasing. The number of reported crimes in Hong Kong has risen steadily each year since 2018 after falling for five consecutive years. Between 2022 and 2023, crime surged by 29 percent, according to police data, with a sharp rise in online scams and fraud.

Yam said that before the national security law, the opposition would have been able to hold the government to account for this crime surge.

“If you look back at 2019 and who caused a lot of the heightened anger among the populace, you think of people like [Chief Executive] John Lee and [Secretary for Security] Chris Tang. They’ve actually been promoted,” he said. “So in fact, in an environment where opposition is being obliterated, incompetence is actually being promoted by the central government.”

Source: Al Jazeera