Democracy activists’ future on the line as mass trial starts in HK

Hong Kong: The mass trial of prominent pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong began on Monday in the city’s largest national security case to date and a test of the rule of law that has underpinned the financial centre’s success.

The 47 defendants range from legal scholar Benny Tai to former legislators Claudia Mo and Leung “Long Hair” Kwok-hung and former student leader Joshua Wong. Some face a maximum of life imprisonment on conviction.

A pro-democracy demonstrator waits outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts as the group was charged in 2021.Credit:Bloomberg

The prosecution of so many key opposition figures at once will draw focus on the controversial security law and the city’s future as an international hub at a time when the government is seeking to promote Hong Kong globally after years of COVID isolation battered its reputation.

It’s been a long and arduous process. The activists were arrested in January 2021 and charged two months later in a move that drew criticism from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other governments. Since then, some 30 defendants have been held without bail under the higher threshold set by the security law. Many chose to plead guilty during detention, including Wong, with only 16 choosing to fight the charges.

The group was charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” over their roles in an unofficial primary vote in July 2020 to select pro-democracy candidates for the legislature. That poll drew more than 600,000 participants, according to organisers.

Activist Joshua Wong.Credit:AP

The government argues that the primary, along with plans to vote down the budget proposal of the city’s then-leader Carrie Lam and force her resignation, amounted to a subversive plot to paralyse the government.

The primary was seen as a challenge to Beijing, coming just weeks after the central government imposed a national security law on Hong Kong.

At the time, China’s top agency in the city accused poll organisers of receiving support from “foreign forces” and said Benny Tai’s goal was to stage a “colour revolution”. Tai had defended the vote, saying it wasn’t an act of secession because the poll wasn’t aimed at splitting the country and wasn’t sourcing funds externally.

The case will be tried by three hand-picked security law judges, instead of a jury, upholding a break with Hong Kong’s common law judicial tradition. So far, no national security law defendant has been granted a jury. The trial is scheduled to run for at least 90 days.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, stands next to Hong Kong CEO John Lee in December. The Hong Kong leader has the power to decide whether foreign lawyers can be involved in national security cases in the city. Credit:Xinhua/AP

Hong Kong courts, which are guaranteed independence under the mini-constitution negotiated before the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, have been credited with helping to preserve the city’s status as a global financial hub. Hong Kong ranked 22nd of 140 jurisdictions surveyed by the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index in 2022, down from 16th place in 2020. China was 95th.

After passage of the national security law, the UK responded by offering a path to British citizenship for eligible Hong Kong residents. The city has experienced its biggest population decline in at least six decades, while more than 150,000 Hongkongers have applied for the British National (Overseas) visa program. The UK has accused China of not complying with the 1984 treaty that paved the way for Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control.

Later this year there will be another key national security trial, this time of media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Prosecutors say the founder of the now defunct Apple Daily newspaper colluded with foreign countries by seeking international sanctions against Hong Kong and China. His trial was initially due to begin last year, but was delayed after the government sought Beijing’s help to bar a UK lawyer from representing Lai, who is fighting the charges.

Lai’s trial is scheduled to start in September in a case that has drawn concern from governments including the US and UK.


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