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The court convicted 14 democracy activists of subversion

Kelly Ng & Lok Lee,in Singapore and Hong Kong

Getty Images Former opposition lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung (center) with members of the Social Democratic Federation at a protest on China's National Day in 2017beautiful images

Former opposition lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung (center) is among 14 people convicted of overthrowing the government

Hong Kong has found 14 pro-democracy activists guilty of subversion in the largest use of the National Security Law imposed by China.

They include former lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung and Helena Wong, journalist-turned-campaigner Gwyneth Ho, and ordinary Hong Kongers who participated in 2019’s mass protests like nurse Winnie Yu.

They are among them 47 activists were charged with plotting to “overthrow” the government by holding an unofficial primary election in 2020 to select potential candidates to run.

They will have”[created] a constitutional crisis for Hong Kong” if they are indeed elected to the legislature, the court ruled on Thursday, agreeing with the prosecution’s argument.

As evidence, the court also cited letters and campaign materials found at the defendants’ homes and devices when they were arrested more than three years ago.

The court acquitted the two defendants – former district councilors Lawrence Lau and Lee Yue-Shun – saying it was “impossible to be certain” that they were “parties to the conspiracy” or that they “intended to overthrow state power”. But the justice department said it would appeal the acquittal.

These 47 people make up some of the most prominent names in the pro-democracy movement since 2014, when thousands of protesters demanded free and fair elections.

“They encapsulate the diverse and universal yearning for democracy and freedom of the people of Hong Kong,” Simon Cheng, person charged with violating the NSL, told the BBC. He fled Hong Kong and has since been granted asylum in the UK.

The case has attracted widespread attention as another test for Hong Kong’s civil liberties under Beijing’s rule. With The trial of billionaire Jimmy Lai, it has highlighted a growing wave of criticism that the National Security Law (NSL) has been used to crush dissent. But China says the law restored stability to the city after the 2019 protests and is necessary to maintain order.

Reuters A protester throws back a tear gas canister as they clash with riot police during protests in Hong Kong in 2019Reuters

In 2019, anger over China’s proposed extradition bill erupted into some of the largest protests Hong Kong has ever seen.

Hong Kong officials applauds a law with a nearly 100% conviction rate. but legal experts say it shows how it is being used to silence dissent – nearly 300 people have been arrested for various acts.

Sentencing is expected to follow, including for the remaining 31 people who pleaded guilty. The overthrow carries a maximum term of life imprisonment, and it is unclear whether a guilty plea would ensure a reduced sentence under the NSL.

Many guilty pleas “can be considered a practical decision, [as the activists] admit that their chances of getting a fair trial are very slim,” Mr. Cheng said.

“It is a tragic reflection of how activists are being forced to make concessions simply to lessen the severity of their punishment under an increasingly authoritarian regime,” he said.

‘What crime did he commit?’

“We both love independence, openness and freedom. What crime did he commit? said Vanessa Chan, whose husband Leung Kwok-hung was one of those convicted on Thursday.

Ms. Chan herself, an activist, and several others wanted to protest but they were stopped by police outside the heavily guarded courthouse.

Speaking to BBC Chinese before the verdict, she said: “I feel sad for him… I know he also feels pain, just like me.”

Mr. Leung, better known by his nickname Long Hair because of his signature hairstyle, has been Hong Kong’s most determined dissident in decades. He has been jailed many times for protesting against the government but this time is different, said Ms. Chan, who only visits him in prison for 15 minutes a day.

“[Back in the 2010s], the social environment is completely different… The democracy movement is progressing. Being imprisoned is just a small obstacle… People feel that there is a lot to do after being released from prison.”

Getty Images Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Long Hair,beautiful images

Leung Kwok-hung or Long Hair once called himself a “Marxist revolutionary”

Now even if he is finally released from prison, she said, he will “only be released from a small prison to a large prison”.

The couple, both in their 60s, married just months before he was detained in early 2021. He has been in prison since then.

Social worker Hendrick Lui’s desire to “contribute to society” landed him in prison, said his adoptive mother, Elsa Wu.

Mr. Lui is among 31 people who have pleaded guilty — and he is one of those running in the unofficial primary election that is at the heart of the case.

“He saw a lot of social problems, so he thought, ‘Why don’t I run,’” she said, adding that she had hoped he would have a life easier after a difficult childhood.

“It would have been better if he had continued working as a social worker.”

Reuters People lined up outside the West Kowloon First Instance Court building before the verdict of 47 democracy activistsReuters

People lined up outside the court days before the verdict

‘A trial of the democracy movement in Hong Kong’

The informal preliminary hearing that the case focuses on was held in July 2020, despite warnings from officials that it could violate the NSL. But more than 600,000 Hong Kongers have voted to choose possible opposition candidates to run in the upcoming election for the Legislative Council or LegCo, Hong Kong’s mini-parliament.

But the elections were postponed and when they were finally held in December 2021 after controversial reforms, pro-Beijing candidates took power. Only 30% of the city’s residents voted. The new law allows Beijing to screen potential candidates, and many of the most prominent opposition lawmakers have faced charges under the NSL.

Authorities defended the prosecution of 47 activists, saying they had an “evil plot” to sabotage the government.

But the trial was controversial. The NSL allows for decisions by three judges handpicked by the Hong Kong government, rather than a jury, which is seen as a departure from the city’s common law traditions.

Most of the defendants have been in jail since their arrest in January 2021 – although the trial did not begin until early 2023. They were denied bail and pre-trial detention soon became common. rules in NSL cases.

The first bail hearing lasted four days, with the defendants being denied the opportunity to change clothes or even shower. Ten of them later fainted and some were taken to the hospital.

Eric Lai, a researcher at the Georgetown Asian Law Center, told the BBC that this was “a trial of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong”.

“These rulings have effectively wiped out the entire political opposition in Hong Kong,” said Sunny Cheung, who also ran in the July 2020 primary but fled the city. .

Now living in exile in the US, he says he misses his fellow activists: “I dreamed about my peers who fought [for] democratic together – survivor’s guilt is immense.”

Additional reporting by Frances Mao in Singapore


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