begin the trial of many in a pro-democracy movement under national security laws

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One of the most significant national security trials in the Chinese government’s crackdown on Hong Kong will begin on Monday, two years after many of the city’s most prominent government critics were first taken into custody.

The case concerns the Hong Kong 47 – a group of pro-democracy lawmakers, politicians, activists and community workers who are accused of conspiring to overthrow state power under the national security law.

They have been accused of holding unofficial pre-election primaries – a move authorities say is biased. The aim of the primaries – a common feature of past elections – was to select the strongest candidates to oppose the pro-Beijing establishment parties.

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Their aim was to win a majority of seats in the Legislative Council. But prosecutors have alleged that the primary’s stated plan – to use this majority to block legislation and veto budget bills – was a “huge, well-orchestrated scheme” to paralyze the government and boost the city’s leader which is supposed to be in Beijing.

“The whole case hinges on hypothetical actions the defendants might take in the future,” says William Nee, a researcher at the US-based China Human Rights Defenders. “It is a clear violation of the right to hold public office under international law.”

The prosecution of this group, which includes most of the city’s most senior democracy supporters, is at the heart of the government’s crackdown on the opposition, observers said.

Professor Chung Kim-wah, a former social scientist at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says that by elevating the supposed crimes of pro-democracy politicians to the level of “conspiracy to overthrow state power”, Beijing is sending a message protesting that the Hong Kong and Chinese governments deserve “the harshest punishment”.

“It aims to intimidate the pro-democracy camp so that they don’t want to stay active because anything they do could be a serious crime,” he says. “This is how Beijing’s political crackdown is reforming Hong Kong. And they will pull out all the stops to make sure there is no disagreement.”

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong poses with other winners of the July 2020 unofficial democratic primaries

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, left, poses with other winners of the unofficial democratic primaries in July 2020. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Eric Lai, a fellow at Georgetown University’s center for Asian law, says: “This is really a test not only for the 47 opposition leaders but also … a test for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, where the majority of the population they have supported their agenda for the past ten years.”

At least 31 people have already pleaded guilty. Sixteen are expected to plead not guilty. Four defendants accused of being “principal offenders” could face life in prison. The court has heard that three people will testify as witnesses for the prosecution.

Doubts about due process

The main schools were held in July 2020, just days after the introduction of the national security law. An estimated 600,000 people turned out to vote in what some saw as an act of unpopularity against the government’s crackdown.

Days later, the Chinese government declared the primary schools illegal. Almost six months later, on the morning of 6 January 2021, the police arrested dozens of organizers and participants in a series of dawn raids.

The elections – which the 47 expected to win – were postponed, apparently because of Covid. They finally took place after a “patriotic only” overhaul of the electoral system which made it impossible for opposition candidates to run and win.

Among those arrested in January were the co-organizers of the main activists and known activists, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Benny Tai, a law scholar who was also an organizer of the 2014 “shadow movement”. Claudia Mo, a staunch pro-democracy legislator and founder of the Civic Party, is also among the group. She resigned from parliament in November 2020, along with the entire pro-democracy bloc, in protest against the disqualification of four colleagues ordered by Beijing. James To and Lam Cheuk-ting, who also resigned from parliament, were also arrested over the primaries.

Among the younger defendants are Joshua Wong, an activist who has already served prison time during the 2019 protests, and Gwyneth Ho, a former young journalist with Stand News, who was a popular candidate at the primaries.

Most of those arrested – 34 of the 47 – were refused bail and have been in custody for more than two years.

Prosecutors allege Tai encouraged the pro-democracy figures, who have been accused of manipulating the electoral system to undermine the government.

“The endgame… was to create an acute crisis in Hong Kong that led to a bloody crackdown and ultimately to lobbying foreign countries to impose political and economic sanctions on the mainland and the city,” read the case summary -prosecutors, quoted in the South China Morning. Post.

“The falsified objective was a clear attempt to overthrow the power of the state, to paralyze the working of the government… by disrupting the normal and systematic running of Legco and ultimately to bring down the government as a whole.”

In September, an initial group of 29 tried to be sentenced earlier, arguing that they may have already served the term they would have received as a sentence. But prosecutors told the high court they would have to wait until after the trial to see the full scope of the alleged conspiracy and the defendants’ guilt, the Hong Kong Free Press reported.

Activists and legal scholars said the national security law created a parallel justice system, with less oversight and fewer rights and protections for defendants. Special judges chosen by the chief executive hear cases under national security law and can be sent to mainland China for trial if deemed necessary. Through the ongoing prosecution of media mogul and activist Jimmy Lai, the government and the courts have ensured that foreign lawyers can be prevented from representing clients.

The trial of the 47, which has been significantly and repeatedly delayed, will have a single judge after Hong Kong’s justice secretary, Paul Lam, declared that the “personal safety of jurors” would be at risk, and said there were “elements foreign there. ” involved in the case.

Eric Lai says the executive branch’s involvement in removing the jury from this trial, and the lengthy pretrial detention of most defendants, are among several aspects of the case that “raised doubts about a fair trial and due process.”

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