As the 90-day trial of 16 pro-democracy figures began Monday in Hong Kong, the global human rights group Amnesty International blasted what it called the “politically motivated” charges against the defendants, while urging authorities to drop the case.
The 16 defendants are part of a group of 47 people including former lawmakers, ex-district councilors, academics, and activists who were arrested in January 2021 and subsequently charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” in alleged violation of a 2020 national security law. The legislation has been condemned by legal experts and activists as a threat to both human rights and Hong Kong’s purported autonomy from Beijing.
The 16 pleaded not guilty Monday; the other 31 previously entered guilty pleas. All of the so-called Hong Kong 47 stand accused of plotting to turn Hong Kong’s legislature into a “lethal constitutional weapon” against the Chinese government. In a break with Hong Kong’s common law judicial tradition, the case is being tried by a trio of hand-picked prosecutors instead of a jury.
“This case has been an obscene injustice since the unprecedented mass prosecution of the 47 defendants began in March 2021,” Amnesty deputy regional director Hana Young said in a statement. “In a trial that lays bare the intrinsically abusive nature of the national security law, some of the defendants face up to life in prison simply for taking part in political party ‘primaries.'”
VIDEO: Hong Kong's largest national security trial opened Monday with 47 pro-democracy figures accused of trying to topple the government.— AFP News Agency (@AFP) February 6, 2023
The defendants, who include some of the city's most prominent activists, face up to life in prison if convicted. pic.twitter.com/LZr6VhRzYI
The five defendants accused of being “major organizers” of the plot are: Benny Tai, a legal scholar; Au Nok-hin, an ex-legislator; Chiu Ka-yin and Chung Kam-lun, former district council members; and Gordon Ng Ching-hang, an activist.
“They are forced to make the impossible decision between pleading guilty to a nonexistent crime for a potential reduction in sentence, or fighting a losing battle under the unjust national security law,” Young added. “Most of the 47 have been detained for two years without trial, due to the extremely stringent bail threshold which in effect creates an assumption against bail in national security cases. Whatever happens in the trial, that injustice alone can never be undone.”
With this mass trial, the Hong Kong government is attempting to shut off all meaningful political participation in Hong Kong. But the fact that people came to the court today to protest against these prosecutions, despite the risks, showed that the Hong Kong authorities will never be able to fully crush dissent.
People must be allowed to freely express their opinions in Hong Kong, without the threat of jail. Peaceful political opposition is not a crime.
“The charges against the 47 are based entirely upon claimed hypothetical threats to national security,” Young added. “All those still detained in the case should be immediately released and the charges against all dropped.”
There was a heavy police presence outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts as the trial got underway Monday. Protesters, including members of the progressive League of Social Democrats, staged small demonstrations outside the building before being dispersed.
The League of Social Democrats is the only group protesting outside the court building, as the landmark trial on 47 leading pro-democracy icons kicks off in Hong Kong. Such a demonstration is rarely seen although it's a very small-scale one. pic.twitter.com/kWEUZ5nnPP— Phoebe Kong (@phoebe_kongwy) February 6, 2023
“Primary elections are something that happens in every democratic country,” one supporter of the defendants toldAgence France-Presse outside the court. “But I don’t know why something like this has happened in Hong Kong, that holding primaries is being considered breaking the law.”
During both the Trump and Biden administrations, the United States—which Beijing accuses of “interference in Hong Kong affairs” and “anti-China destabilization”—imposed sanctions on a handful of Hong Kong and Chinese officials in connection with the crackdown. Biden also recently extended a program that shields Hong Kong residents from deportation.
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