Hong Kong Democrats face biggest national security trial to date

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What is the trial about?

The defendants were arrested in connection with an informal primary election held in July 2020 in which more than 600,000 voters selected pro-democracy candidates for a Legislative Council election then scheduled for September. Officials later postponed that election, citing the coronavirus pandemic, and then held it in December 2021 after election laws were revised to strictly limit who can run for office.

Many of the candidates in the primary elections had repeatedly vowed to veto the government’s proposed budget in an effort to force the resignation of Carrie Lam, who was then the city’s top leader. While the candidates described the plan as normal opposition policy, authorities said it amounted to a «vicious plot» to overthrow the government.

They also said it could be a violation of the national security law that Beijing had just imposed in response to the protests, which at times turned violent. The law, which officials say was necessary to restore stability, criminalizes subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

It has also reshaped Hong Kong’s common law system, allowing for non-jury trials overseen by handpicked judges. Defendants are often denied bail for fear they could commit more national security crimes, a tactic critics say is aimed at making them more cooperative with prosecutors.

Officials deny that Hong Kong’s judicial independence is under threat, pointing to protections in the Bill of Rights and the territory’s mini-constitution.

«Everyone charged with a criminal offense is entitled to and will be given a fair trial by the judiciary,» the Hong Kong government said in a statement on Wednesday. «Courts decide cases strictly in accordance with the evidence and all applicable laws.»

What is the meaning of judgment?

Hong Kong’s political opposition has already been decimated by the national security law and other government measures, with most pro-democracy figures jailed, resigning from politics or living in self-imposed exile.

The trial of the “Hong Kong 47” deals another blow to morale and could further divide the movement: three of the primary organizers are expected to testify against others.

Those who pleaded guilty probably did so because they expected shorter sentences, Wang said. They will be sentenced after the trial, which is expected to last several months and attract international attention.

“I am grateful that I can still feel that I am not alone in facing this year’s sentence,” said Wong, 26, who pleads guilty, in a letter posted on Facebook in late January thanking those who wrote to him in prison.

Wang said it would also be a «precedent-setting» trial for people like media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is not one of the 47 defendants in this case but faces other national security charges.

It indicates, he said, «how severely the Chinese government is willing to punish pro-democracy activism.»

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