After joint 108 years of pretrial detention, 47 Hong Kongers face security verdict | Court News

A verdict is finally in sight in Hong Kong's longest-running national security trial against 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and political activists. The defendants have together spent 39,000 days or about 108 years in pretrial detention 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 plotting to commit “subversion” by organizing an unofficial primary election to elect pro-independence candidates. democracy in July 2020. The defendants include the alleged organizers as well as potential candidates who hoped to win the primaries and participate in the semi-democratic legislative council elections, which were ultimately canceled, with prosecutors claiming this was an attempted to “overthrow” the government.

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

On Thursday, a panel of three carefully selected national security judges will begin issuing their verdict for the 16 defendants who have pleaded “not guilty.”

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

Despite the long wait for the verdict, the conclusion seems inevitable, said Eric Lai, a researcher at the Georgetown Asian Law Center in the United States.

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

“Most of these defendants are not mere individual participants, they are former legislators, former political party figures and key figures of 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 be convicted according to the Beijing manuscript.”

More than 600,000 people turned out to vote in July 2020, when the pro-democracy camp organized primaries to choose their strongest candidates for the Legislative Council elections, which were 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 resign and dissolve the legislature. .

At the time, there was some competition for seats in the legislature with some members elected by direct election (the rules were changed in 2021 to require prior vetting of all candidates to ensure only “patriots” could compete).

A record number of at least 600,000 Hong Kongers attended the unofficial primaries, and the large queues were seen as a rebuke to the Hong Kong government.

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

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

Low-level “offenders” face between three and 10 years in prison for “active” participation, while “other participants” could face up to three years in prison.

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

Legislators, nurses, lawyers.

The 47, who are aged between 20 and 60, include some of Hong Kong's highest-profile opposition figures, including Benny Tai, 59, a jurist 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. Among them is Gordon Ng, 47, a dual Australian citizen who prosecutors have portrayed as the organizer of the election and who has been repeatedly denied Australian consular assistance. He is among 16 who pleaded not guilty.

The other three named organizers, lawmakers Au Nok-him, 33; Andrés Chiu, 38; and Ben Chung, 35, pleaded guilty and testified as prosecution witnesses 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 has pleaded not guilty and has been detained since 2021. Before that, she helped organize protests by hospital staff in early 2020 to demand that the city closed its border with China after the COVID outbreak. -19.

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

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

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

He also said the disqualifications could create a “legitimacy crisis” for Beijing abroad because it would appear to go against the wishes of the Hong Kong people.

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

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

Lawyer and pro-democracy activist Lawrence Lau arrives at court.  He wears a three-piece suit with a blue tie and a matching silk handkerchief in the breast pocket.
Lawyer and pro-democracy activist Lawrence Lau (center) was one of the few to be released on 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 move to the sentencing and mitigation phase, when judges will consider each defendant's circumstances.

Lai told Al Jazeera that it could take up to six months to reach a full conclusion, and that any defendant released on bail could have their sentence overturned.

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

The 2020 national security law criminalized crimes considered secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. Article 23 expands these charges and adds new ones such as 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 tracks cases in Hong Kong courts, said 286 people were arrested by the 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 anti-sedition law dating back to the British colonial era.

The mass trial has already damaged Hong Kong's reputation as Asia's “freest” city, but its effects will be much more profound in the long term, warned Kevin Yam, a former Hong Kong lawyer and democracy activist now living 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 begun to return, the trial should make them reflect on the quality of governance, according to Yam, who is also wanted by Hong Kong police for national security “crimes,” and is offering a $1 million “reward.” of Hong Kong dollars ($128,888). ”For anyone who provides information that leads to his arrest.

“International companies should be very concerned about the fact that the opposition has been eliminated from the Hong Kong political scene with cases like this, the quality of governance and accountability has collapsed,” he told Al Jazeera.

Recent blunders include an attempt to change the city's garbage collection schedule, to an ill-fated attempt to lure soccer star Lionel Messi to play in Hong Kong on unsustainable 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 arrest woman during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong
2019 protesters accused police of brutality and demanded investigation [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

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

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

“If you look back at 2019 and who caused great anger among the population, you think of people like [Chief Executive] John Lee and [Secretary for Security] Chris Tang. In fact, they have been promoted,” he said. “So in effect, in an environment where the opposition is being eliminated, the central government is promoting incompetence.”

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