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Friday, July 19, 2024

Hong Kong convicts 14 activists of subversion

Hong Kong found 14 pro-democracy activists guilty of subversion in the largest use yet of a China-imposed National Security Law.

They included former lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung and Helena Wong, journalist-turned-campaigner Gwyneth Ho, and ordinary Hong Kongers who joined the mass protests of 2019 such as nurse Winnie Yu.

They were among the 47 activists charged with trying to “overthrow” the government by organising an unofficial primary in 2020 to pick candidates who can run for office.

They would have “[created] a constitutional crisis for Hong Kong” if they had indeed been elected to the legislature, the court ruled on Thursday.

The convictions showed “the scale and the seriousness of the criminal scheme”, said Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, adding that his government will do its “utmost to prevent, suppress and impose punishment” for any activities “endangering national security”.

Outside the courthouse on Thursday, Vanessa Chan, the wife of Leung Kwok-hung, was arrested along with three other activists for trying to stage a protest, according to police sources for “disorderly conduct”.

Anthony WALLACE / AFP In this picture taken on August 4, 2020, pro-democracy activist Gwyneth Ho, who was recently banned from standing in upcoming local elections, poses with her disqualification notice at her office in Hong Kong
Among those found guilty is journalist Gwyneth Ho who inadvertently live-streamed herself being beaten by a mob during 2019 protests

On Thursday, three High Court judges Andrew Chan, Alex Lee, and Johnny Chan agreed with the prosecutors’ argument that had the pro-democracy candidates been elected they would have tried to “veto or refuse to pass any budgets” introduced by the Hong Kong government.

This and other actions, the court said, would have led to “serious interfering in, disrupting or undermining the performance of duties and functions in accordance with the law by the (Hong Kong) government”.

As evidence, the court cited letters and campaign materials found at the defendants’ homes and on their devices when they were arrested more than three years ago.

The court acquitted two of the defendants – former district councillors Lawrence Lau and Lee Yue-Shun – saying it “cannot be sure” that they were “parties to the scheme” or that they “had the intention to subvert the state’s power”. But the justice department said they would appeal the acquittals.

The 47 make up some of the most prominent names in the pro-democracy movement, going back to 2014, when thousands protested for free and fair elections.

“They encapsulate the diverse and universal yearning for democracy and freedom among Hong Kong’s citizens,” Simon Cheng, who was accused of violating the NSL, told the BBC. He fled Hong Kong and has since been granted asylum in the UK.

The case drew huge attention as yet another test for Hong Kong’s civil liberties under Beijing’s rule. Along with the trial of billionaire Jimmy Lai, it spotlighted the growing criticism that the National Security Law (NSL) has been used to crush dissent. But China had said the law restored stability to the city in the wake of the 2019 protests and is essential to maintaining order.

Ms Chan is the chairperson of the League of Social Democrats, one of the very few pro-democracy political groups that still exist in Hong Kong.

Rights groups and several Western countries condemned the verdict, repeating concerns that the prosecutions were “politically motivated”.

The UK said the case showed how authorities have used the National Security Law (NSL) to “stifle opposition and criminalise political dissent”.

It “tarnish[es] Hong Kong’s international reputation” and “sends a message that Hong Kongers can no longer safely and meaningfully participate in peaceful political debate,” said UK Minister for the Indo-Pacific Anne Marie Trevelyan.

The EU said it “marks a further deterioration of fundamental freedoms and democratic participation” and Australia expressed “strong objections” to the way the NSL’s “broad application”. One of the convicted campaigners, Gordon Ng, is an Australian citizen.

Reuters A demonstrator throws back a tear gas canister as they clash with riot police during a protest in Hong Kong in 2019
In 2019, anger over an extradition bill proposed by China erupted into some of the largest protests Hong Kong had ever seen

In response to the verdict, Beijing’s foreign ministry said, “Hong Kong is a society based on rule of law… No one can conduct illegal activities under the banner of democracy and try to escape legal sanctions.”

“We resolutely oppose certain countries intervening in China’s domestic affairs and smearing or undermining Hong Kong’s legal system by individual judicial cases,” said the ministry’s spokeswoman Mao Ning.

Hong Kong’s officials hail the NSL’s nearly 100% conviction rate but legal experts say that shows how it is being used to silence dissent – nearly 300 people have been arrested under it for a wide range of acts.

Sentencing is expected at a later date, including for the remaining 31 who pleaded guilty. Subversion carries a maximum term of life imprisonment and it’s unclear if a guilty plea warrants a reduced sentence under the NSL.

Many of the guilty pleas were “likely taken as a pragmatic decision, [as the activists] recognise that their chances of a fair trial are slim,” Mr Cheng said.

“It’s a tragic reflection of how activists are being forced into concessions just to mitigate the severity of their punishment under an increasingly authoritarian regime,” he said.

‘What crime has he committed?’

“Both of us love independence, openness and freedom. What kind of crime has he committed?” said Vanessa Chan, wife of Leung Kwok-hung.

Speaking to BBC Chinese ahead of the verdict and her subsequent arrest, she said: “I feel sad for him… I know he feels miserable, just like I do.”

Mr Leung, better known as Long Hair for his trademark hairstyle, was for decades Hong Kong’s most dogged dissident. He was jailed several times for anti-government protests but it’s different this time, said Ms Chan, who visits him in jail for just 15 minutes each day.

“[Back in the 2010s], the social environment was completely different… The pro-democracy movement was advancing. Being imprisoned was just a small setback… People felt that there was a lot to do after being released from prison.”

Getty Images Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Long Hair,
Leung Kwok-hung or Long Hair once described himself as a “Marxist revolutionary”

Now, she said, even when he is eventually out of jail, he would “only be released from a small prison to a big prison”.

The couple, both in their 60s, got married just a few months before he was detained in early 2021. He has been in jail since then.

Social worker Hendrick Lui’s desire to “contribute to society” landed him in jail, said Elsa Wu, his foster mother.

Mr Lui is among the 31 who pleaded guilty – and he was one of those who contested in the unofficial primary that is at the heart of the case.

“He saw a lot of social problems, so he thought, ‘Why don’t I run in the election,’” she said, adding that she had hoped he would have an easier life after a difficult childhood.

“It would have been better if he just continued working as a social worker.”

Reuters People queue up outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts building, before the verdict of the 47 pro-democracy activists
People queued outside the courthouse for days ahead of the verdict

‘A trial of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement’

The unofficial primary the case centers on was held in July 2020, despite warnings from officials that it may violate the NSL. But more than 600,000 Hong Kongers voted to pick opposition candidates who could run in the upcoming elections for the Legislative Council or LegCo, Hong Kong’s mini-parliament.

But the elections were postponed and when they were finally held in December 2021 after controversial reforms, pro-Beijing candidates swept to power. Only 30% of the city voted. The new laws allowed Beijing to screen who could run for office, and many of the most prominent opposition lawmakers were already facing charges under NSL.

Authorities defended prosecution of the 47 activists, saying they had a “vicious plot” to undermine the government.

But the trial was controversial. The NSL allows it to be decided by three judges handpicked by the Hong Kong government, rather than a jury, in what was seen as a departure from the city’s common law traditions.

Most of the defendants have been in jail since their arrest in January 2021 – even though the trial didn’t start until early 2023. They were denied bail and pre-trial detentions soon became the norm in NSL cases.

The very first bail hearing dragged on for four days, with defendants denied the possibility to change or even shower. Ten of them later fainted and several were sent to hospital.

This was “a trial of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement,” Eric Lai, a research fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, told the BBC.

“These verdicts effectively wipe out the whole political opposition in Hong Kong,” said Sunny Cheung, who also ran in the July 2020 primary but fled the city.

Now in exile in the US, he said he misses his fellow activists: “I have been dreaming about my peers who fought [for] democracy together. The survivor guilt is immense.”

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