Hong Kong's largest national security trial since the sweeping National Security Law was imposed by Beijing is underway with a cross-section of pro-democracy figures standing accused of "conspiracy to commit subversion" for holding pre-election primaries in July 2020 that Beijing had not condoned.
What is expected to be a 90-day trial began Monday in the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts. The case will be heard without a jury.
The vaguely worded law went into effect in Hong Kong on June 30, 2020, following anti-government protests in 2019. The law, which strictly prohibits acts deemed as secession, subversion, foreign collusion or terrorism, has been used by authorities to target Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
Among those charged are activists, former politicians and community workers. Most were arrested in pre-dawn raids on January 6, 2021. Most were denied bail and have been in jail since then.
Prosecutors described the primary election – held to select the strongest candidates to run against pro-Beijing candidates in the Legislative Council election – as a "vicious plot" to subvert Hong Kong's government and undermine Beijing's power, which saw a vote in the July 2020 election as a protest.
Thirty-one of the 47 pleaded guilty before the case came to trial. Those who entered guilty pleas include former law professor and pro-democracy activist Benny Tai and the prominent young activist Joshua Wong. They, and the others who pleaded guilty, will be sentenced after the trial. All the defendants face charges that carry life sentences.
Prosecutor Jonathan Man told the court that four of the 47 defendants are set to testify against the 16 who did not plead guilty.
Kenneth Chan, associate professor at the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the long detention played a role in why four have agreed to testify against the others.
Outside the court, members of pro-democratic organizations demonstrated and demanded the immediate release of the detainees. Dozens of police surrounded the protesters and erected a blockade to prevent reporters from conducting interviews with them.
Police arrested one of the demonstrators for removing his mask to speak because Hong Kong has yet to lift its mask mandate for COVID-19 prevention.
Chan Po-ying, chairwoman of the League of Social Democrats, a social democratic party in Hong Kong that is one of the few remaining pro-democracy organizations, told VOA Cantonese, "We don't know why the 90-day trial is necessary, because basically we saw that the accusations made by the prosecution were completely false."
She said that Hong Kong's years of peaceful elections are also on trial.
"Now we are trying our election," she said. "There were 600,000 people on the day of the trial who voted in the primary election."
She also questioned why the accused, like almost all the other people charged under the National Security Law, are not eligible for bail.
Hundreds of people lined up outside the court before the trial was expected to start in order to obtain one of 39 tickets to sit in the courtroom. According to the Hong Kong Free Press, Robin, a journalism student at the University of Hong Kong, was the first in line, arriving at 6 p.m. Sunday.
Many people brought folding chairs and cardboard and camped overnight outside the court building.
Bull Tsang, a League of Social Democrats member, told VOA Cantonese he suspected some of the people in line were trying to occupy seats in order to exclude defendants' family and supporters from the courtroom.
"Some ladies said [they] got paid 150 HKD [roughly 20 USD]. I hope it's not the case," Tsang told VOA.
"If those who are here to occupy the seats take the tickets and leave after getting paid, the courtroom would be empty."
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.