Hong Kong democracy leaders convicted in most significant verdicts since Beijing’s national security crackdown

By Jessie Yeung, Nectar Gan and Chris Lau, CNN

Hong Kong CNN  — 

More than a dozen of Hong Kong’s leading democracy figures were found guilty Thursday on subversion charges, following the largest national security trial since Beijing’s sweeping crackdown on the once free-wheeling city.

The 14 activists and politicians were convicted of “conspiracy to commit subversion” for their roles in holding an unofficial primary election in 2020 to decide who should contest city lawmaker elections.

They were among 47 defendants in what became known as the trial of the “Hong Kong 47” – a closely watched, landmark prosecution under a national security law Beijing imposed on the city in the wake of mass anti-government protests the previous year.

Those on trial represented a broad swathe of Hong Kong’s now dismantled democracy movement and most pleaded guilty during the prosecution process.

But 16 activists and politicians decided to fight the charges, opting for a full trial which lasted for more than a year. Two were acquitted on Thursday and walked free from the court. The remaining 45 now await sentencing at a later date and could face a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Thursday’s verdict offers one of the clearest windows into how the national security law has rewritten the city’s political landscape, with a once-permitted pro-democracy opposition now decimated and dissent all but erased.

The Hong Kong and Beijing governments have repeatedly denied the national security law is suppressing freedoms, arguing it has ended chaos and “restored stability” to the city.

In an executive summary outlining the convictions, a panel of judges ruled the prosecution had proved the defendants were engaged in a conspiracy to disrupt the government’s “duties and functions … with a view to subverting the state power.”

Supporters of those convicted maintain they were simply taking part in the kind of oppositional politics that was once allowed to flourish in Hong Kong, and Thursday’s verdict signals China’s control of the once-outspoken city is all but complete.

Since the national security law came into effect in 2020, civil groups have disbanded, and independent media outlets have been shut down. The city’s legislature now comprises only of pro-Beijing loyalists, while most pro-democracy figures are either in jail or in exile overseas.

The 47 defendants were first arrested in dawn raids on January 6, 2021 – 1,240 days ago – and most have been held in detention for more than three years.

They include seasoned politicians, elected lawmakers and young protest leaders, as well as academics, unionists, journalists and medical workers. They hail from multiple generations and a wide political spectrum – from moderate democrats to those who advocate for Hong Kong’s self-determination.

Among those who pleaded not guilty and were convicted on Thursday were former journalist Gwyneth Ho, 33, who famously live-streamed an attack on pro-democracy demonstrators inside a subway station, and former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, 68, known by the nickname “Long Hair,” a left-wing activist who began his long political career campaigning against British colonial rule.

Following the verdicts, some family members cried openly in the courtroom and waved to the defendants. Some defendants smiled and waved back, others looked resigned.

The two acquitted were former district councilors Lawrence Lau and Lee Yu-shun, who took part in the unofficial primary held by democrats in 2020.

“Today, I shouldn’t be the focus of attention. I hope everyone will continue to pay attention to other friends in the case,” Lau, a barrister, said after he walked free from the court. “Thank you very much for the concern over all the defendants of this case, please, please carry on your concern and give them love.”

Lee, sporting a golden chain and a tiger print shirt, said he could not say much even after being acquitted.

“Because the Department of Justice has indicated that it may appeal, I cannot make any comments or give any opinions on the ruling or this case at this stage.” he said. “So I can only tell you that I feel very calm and thank you for your concern. Now I want to go have dimsum with my family because I haven’t been able to see them yet.”

Hours later, the prosecutors confirmed in court they would appeal against the acquittals.

Human Rights Watch condemned the convictions, arguing the democracy leaders were prosecuted for “peaceful activism” and that the verdict showed “utter contempt for both democratic political processes and the rule of law.”

Lee Yue-shun speaks to media after being acquitted on national security charges in Hong Kong, China, on May 30, 2024.

A ‘vicious plot’?

The case of the “Hong Kong 47” arose from an unofficial primary election held by the pro-democracy opposition in July 2020 for the city’s legislature. The goal was to narrow down their best chances for candidates to try and win a majority, much like similar polls found in other democracies around the world.

But Hong Kong authorities said the primary vote was a “vicious plot” intended to “paralyze the government and undermine state power” and accused those who took part of intending to use their mandate to block legislation indiscriminately.

The Legislative Council election – which the defendants had hoped to win by holding the primary vote – was postponed to 2021 due to Covid health concerns cited by the authorities during the pandemic.

During the postponement, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities rewrote the city’s electoral rules, putting in place a stricter screening system to weed out candidates deemed “unpatriotic.”

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council currently has no pro-democracy lawmakers, and the upcoming district council elections, to be held in December, also do not feature any pro-democracy candidates.

In the face of a trial without jury, 31 defendants pleaded guilty, a move that in Hong Kong usually leads to a reduced sentence. But that strategy is now in doubt after another local national security law enacted earlier this year curtailed access to reduced sentences for guilty pleas.

Those who pleaded guilty included Joshua Wong, 27, who gained international fame as the face of Hong Kong’s years of student-led democracy protests and was labeled an “extremist” by China’s state media, Benny Tai, 59, a former law professor and co-founder of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, and Claudia Mo, 67, a former journalist-turned-reform minded legislator.

Foreign diplomats are among the about 200 members of public queuing outside the court on Thursday morning.

Sweeping changes

Hong Kong’s democracy activists are no strangers to courtrooms. Many served time for their activism. But the trial of the “Hong Kong 47” showed how the legal system has changed under the national security law, which criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers and carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Its wording, as well as its application, is more in keeping with laws in mainland China, where courts are tightly controlled by the ruling Communist Party and have a conviction rate above 99.9%. In contrast, Hong Kong follows a common law system that had been kept intact after the former British colony was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997.

Nearly 300 people, aged between 15 and 90, have been arrested under the Beijing-imposed national security law since it was enacted, according to police.

Like all national security cases so far, the trial of the Hong Kong 47 was heard without a jury, deviating from the common law tradition, a power granted by the Beijing-imposed law. It was also presided over by a bench of three High Court Judges designated by the city’s Chief Executive to handle national security cases.

The law also places a higher threshold for bail. Thirty-two defendants have been denied bail and have been in detention since 2021 – a highly unusual practice for cases that do not involve murder. Only 15 were granted bail, but two of them had their application revoked later for breaching bail conditions.

The trial brought the imposition of mainland legal concepts, mainland law into the common law system into sharp relief, said John Burns, emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong.

“It’s absolutely clear that the national security law reduced the independence and the autonomy of the judiciary. No juries, much more difficult to get bail – those are all things that previously were determined by the judges.”

Legal scholars and Western governments have lamented how the national security law has dealt a blow to the city’s judicial independence, but authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have warned foreign parties against interfering in the city’s internal affairs and judicial system.

Before the trial began in February, the Hong Kong government called criticism on the trial “scandalizing of the criminal justice process” and “a blatant act undermining the rule of law of Hong Kong.”

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