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National Security Trial Begins for 47 Hong Kong Pro-democracy Activists

FILE - Pro-democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung, also known as 'Long Hair,' gestures as he walks to a prison van with other activists to head to court over a national security law charge, in Hong Kong, March 4, 2021.

Hong Kong's largest national security law case started on Tuesday, with 47 pro-democracy activists and lawmakers standing trial.

The defendants are charged with "conspiracy to subversion" under the city's national security law, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Following the anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong to quell political dissent. The law, which strictly prohibits acts deemed as secession, subversion, foreign collusion and terrorism, has been used by authorities to target the core of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

In February 2021, the 47 activists surrendered to authorities and were charged under the sweeping security law for organizing an unofficial primary election in 2020. Authorities accused them of intending to abuse their powers as lawmakers, had they had been elected and achieved a majority in Hong Kong's Legislature. They also said those accused would have stifled government operations and forced Hong Kong's chief executive to resign.

The defendants include democratically elected lawmakers, councilors, academics and pro-democracy advocates. Among them are prominent activist Joshua Wong, veteran activist Leung "Long Hair" Kwok-hung, former professor Benny Tai, former lawmaker Claudia Mo, and former journalist Gwyneth Ho.

'De facto sentences'

Since the defendants were charged, court proceedings have been lengthy. Only 13 of the defendants have been granted bail, while the remainder have been in pretrial detention, waiting for court proceedings to reach trial.

Michael Mo, a former Hong Kong district councilor who is currently in Britain, criticized the time it has taken for the trial to begin.

"The prolonged pretrial proceedings served as de facto sentences to these pro-democracy campaigners and displayed the mockery of the prosecution procedure, which claimed itself to be fair and efficient," he said.

The case was first brought to court in March last year, and the hearing lasted for four days. Over the past 15 months, there have been few updates because most of the pretrial hearings have been subject to reporting restrictions.

"The court imposes strict restrictions on journalists about what can be reported. The public is in the dark, as what happened at the proceedings remained largely whispered or forbidden. It left a scar on Hong Kong's judiciary, which were once proud to be transparent," Mo said.

"The trial and the sentences [charges] reflect how Beijing views the legal system of Hong Kong," he said. "It's their tool to silence the dissidents just like what they did in mainland China."

National security law

Since the national security law came into effect nearly three years ago, more than 180 people have been arrested and several have been jailed. The legislation has also forced independent media and civil societies in the city to close.

In landmark cases under the law, dissidents have faced trial without a jury and before specially enlisted national security judges. The first person sentenced under the law received nine years in prison in July.

According to local reports, 46 of the 47 cases are now with Hong Kong's High Court and carry a maximum punishment of life in prison.