Hong Kong’s largest national security law trial opened on Monday with 47 of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy activists facing up to life imprisonment in a landmark case that could spell the end of the territory’s once vibrant political opposition.
The defendants, who include some of Hong Kong’s highest-profile politicians and campaigners, were arrested in January 2021 in the single largest police raid under the national security law. Most of the defendants have spent more than two years in pretrial detention after being denied bail.
Critics have described the arrests as a politically motivated crusade to wipe out Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy parties and eradicate opposition voices, part of China’s wider crackdown on the territory’s freedoms and civil society in the wake of anti-government protests in 2019.
Beijing directly imposed the national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 in the wake of the protests, criminalising broadly defined crimes including terrorism, secession, subversion and collusion with foreign powers. The move has reverberated widely through civil society, the legal sector and the education system, stamping out dissent.
The trial also comes as Hong Kong’s government launches an initiative to revive its ailing economy and lure back international business after three years of pandemic restrictions and protests that battered its international reputation.
The 47 defendants include activist Joshua Wong, AFP journalist-turned-lawmaker Claudia Mo, social activist and League of Social Democrats co-founder “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and former BBC Chinese journalist Gwyneth Ho.
They were charged with conspiring to subvert state power under the sweeping security law by either organising or participating in an unofficial primary election among the opposition camp in July 2020. More than 600,000 people cast their votes in the poll, which the prosecution says was an attempt to “paralyse” Hong Kong’s government by winning control of the legislature, which is now entirely occupied by pro-Beijing parties.
Sixteen of the defendants, including Leung and Ho, pleaded not guilty during Monday’s hearing. “I have committed no crime,” Leung told the court. Thirty-one others pleaded guilty either on Monday or in previous proceedings, of which four have agreed to give evidence for the prosecution, lawyers for the government said on Monday. At least 90 days have been earmarked for the non-jury trial.
Three members from Leung’s LSD, one of the last remaining active opposition factions, called for the defendants’ release outside the courtroom on Monday before being dispersed by police.
Thomas Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, described the trial as having “all of the hallmarks of being a politically motivated prosecution of the city’s mainstream political opposition”.
“This case is significant for what it says about human rights in Hong Kong,” he said. “The fact that several dozen top opposition politicians could be soon headed to jail . . . speaks all too clearly about the damage that has been done to Hong Kong’s once-vibrant civic life.”
The case has stoked tensions between China and the west. The US, UK and EU have previously denounced the charges, and diplomats from consulates in Hong Kong have attended pretrial hearings. They were also present on Monday.
Hong Kong is expected to try another high-profile national security case this year, against media mogul and Beijing critic Jimmy Lai in September. Lai, 75, faces charges of foreign collusion for his role as founder of the defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily.
He has been in prison since December 2020 and was sentenced in December 2022 to five years and nine months in jail on fraud charges related to his media company, in addition to 20 months for illegal assembly over the protests.
Analysts have warned that the security law trials will put pressure on Hong Kong’s common law system, one of the last foundations that distinguishes the territory from mainland China, where the ruling communist party influences the courts.
China’s top legislative body last month said that John Lee, Hong Kong’s leader, could prevent defendants in national security cases from hiring foreign lawyers, an unprecedented intrusion into the right to representation. Lee had sought Beijing’s intervention to prevent Lai from hiring a British barrister after the government lost an appeal bid to the city’s apex court.
More than 200 people, including family members and friends of the activists along with well-wishers, lined up to attend the trial on Monday.
“My conscience has urged me to come and support them . . . I have to stay true to myself,” said Jerome Lau, 72, outside the courtroom.
Additional reporting by Primrose Riordan in Hong Kong