Hong Kong’s largest national security trialbegan on Monday, involving 47 of the city’s most high-profile democracy advocates, in a hearing that has been labelled a trial of the territory’s pro-democracy movement itself.
The group of former politicians, activists, campaigners, and community workers are accused of “conspiracy to commit subversion” over the holding of unofficial pre-election primaries in July 2020.
The case is at the centre of the Hong Kong and Beijing governments’ crackdown on opposition and dissent in the city, after the mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Among the accused is legal academic Benny Tai, former lawmakers Claudia Mo, Au Nok-hin and Leung Kwok-hung, as well as well-known activists “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Joshua Wong and Lester Shum.
The trial on Monday began with the court reading out the charge and formally taking pleas from 18 defendants. All 18 repeated that they would plead not guilty except ex-district councillor Ng Kin-wai and merchant Mike Lam.
Ng, who indicated his intention to change his plea to guilty last November, told the three judges: “I did not succeed in subverting the state power. I plead guilty.”
Lam also officially confirmed that he pleaded guilty to the charge, after he informed the court of such intention last month.
Former legislator Leung, on the other hand, said in court that there was “no crime to admit,” when he reiterated his not guilty plea.
Those who have pleaded guilty will not be sentenced until after the trial, which is expected to run for 90 days.
Those accused of being “principal offenders” could face life in prison. The court has heard that three people will give evidence as witnesses for the prosecution.
The case has been condemned by human rights and legal groups, who accuse the government of using the national security law and changes to the justice process to crush dissent.
Judge Andrew Chan told members of the public to “respect” the hearing, after some people laughed while the democrats were taking pleas.
The judge also warned the defendants not to disturb the proceedings or shout from the dock.
“If you continue to interrupt the proceedings, I may have to put the order of putting you behind the door,” he said.
Hundreds of people had lined up outside the court on Monday, before its expected start. There was a heavy police presence, including police dogs checking nearby bushes.
Members of the League of Social Democrats, one of Hong Kong’s last active pro-democracy groups, were pushed away by police when they arrived at court to protest.
Chan Po-ying, the chairperson of the group, was heard saying “hope reporters are all filming this” as officers surrounded and shoved her. Chan and a colleague, who held up a banner, were moved to another area behind a barricade.
“Crackdown is shameless,” read a banner carried by two people. “Immediately release all political prisoners”, it said.
Robin, a journalism student at the University of Hong Kong, was the first in line outside the court building. He said that he arrived at 6pm on Sunday. The student had brought with him a foldable chair, as well as a duffle bag.
Robin said that he wanted to attend the hearing “out of his own interests,” and that he was not sure what to expect from the trial.
“I just heard that all the most outspoken activists are here, like Joshua Wong, Gwyneth Ho, and Benny Tai, and all the others, so I just want to come and see what happens there.”
Several others, when questioned, appeared unaware of what case they were waiting for. One told a Hong Kong Free Press reporter she was there for the case of Jimmy Lai, a media mogul and activist who is facing charges in a separate case and is not among the 47. Some people told others not to talk to reporters. Some in the line filmed and photographed journalists.
Several people who had obtained tickets for the 39 seats allocated for the public inside the main court room were later seen leaving prior to the hearing commencing.
Representatives from the UK, US, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, European Union, and France were also among those queueing up.
Laurence Vandewalle from the European Union Office to Hong Kong and Macau, said that the European Union has been observing trials across the globe “as a sign of commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
“In this specific case, the trial of the democrats under the NSL, because you might know the European Union is following this with great care,” said Vandewelle.
“And we appreciate that the judiciary system is open and we can observe, so we are here to observe.”
The accused were arrested more than two years ago, over the holding of unofficial pre-election primaries in July 2020. They were accused of conspiring to paralyse the government over a plan to win a majority of seats and use the mandate to block legislation and perhaps force the resignation of the chief executive.
The primaries aimed to select the strongest candidates among the pro-democracy movement to run against the pro-Beijing establishment parties. Unofficial primary polls had been a common feature of elections in the past, across the political spectrum, but days later Beijing declared the democracy camp’s event to be illegal. In dawn raids on 6 January 2021, 47 organisers, candidates and campaigners were arrested.
Most have been in jail for almost two years, having been denied bail. Legal observers have criticised the national security law for reversing the presumption of bail for defendants.
More than 600,000 people voted at the primaries, in what was viewed as a sign of protest against the government crackdown.