Hong Kong pro-democracy figures set for biggest national security trial

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Hong Kong (AFP) – Hong Kong’s biggest national security case went to trial on Tuesday after 15 months of pre-trial proceedings in which most of the 47 defendants were denied bail.

Under the security law, which Beijing imposed in 2020 following huge, sometimes violent, democracy protests, pro-democracy figures are charged with “subversion conspiracy” for staging an unofficial primary election.

Subversion is one of four major crimes under the Security Act and can carry a sentence of up to life in prison.

The defendants, ages 24 to 66, include democratically elected lawmakers and district councilors, as well as trade unionists, academics and others, whose political positions range from modest reformers to radical localists.

The case first came to court in March 2020, when most of the 47 people were denied bail after a marathon four-day hearing before a government-handpicked judge. to adjudicate national security cases.

Most pre-trial hearings over the past 15 months, although held in open court, have been subject to reporting restrictions – with the court repeatedly denying requests by defendants and journalists to let them be lifted.

Family members and legal representatives told AFP that the opacity left the defendants “frustrated and exhausted”, 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 ended on Tuesday, all but one of the 47 defendants were committed to higher court by Senior Magistrate Peter Law, one of the judges of national security.

Last Wednesday, Law announced that seventeen defendants had been committed to trial.

They included veteran “Long Hair” activist Leung Kwok-hung, lawyer Lawrence Lau and journalist-turned-activist Gwyneth Ho.

China’s national security law for Hong Kong John SAEKIAFP

Twenty-nine other people, including lawyer Benny Tai, who was also one of the leaders of the “Occupy Central” movement in 2014, were imprisoned on Monday and Tuesday.

Defendants who plead not guilty are committed for trial, and those who plead guilty are remanded for sentencing, in accordance with the Magistrates’ Ordinance.

The only outstanding defendant will join the cohort later after further proceedings before the magistrate.

Hong Kong is under scrutiny over whether its legal system can maintain its independence as China cracks down on dissent with security law.

More than 180 people have been arrested in the past two years since the security law came into effect — most of them activists, trade unionists and journalists — and 115 have been prosecuted.

Three men were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 43 months to nine years. One of them asked on Tuesday to appeal his 69-month sentence, the court having reserved his judgment until the beginning of September.

The 47 defendants form the largest group in a single case under the law.

Authorities say the security law has succeeded in restoring stability to the financial hub, which was rocked for seven straight months by large and at times violent protests in 2019.

But critics say it eviscerated the civil liberties and political plurality the city enjoyed.

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