Hong Kong convicts 14 pro-democracy activists of subversion in landmark case

Hong Kong’s High Court found 14 pro-democracy activists guilty of “conspiracy to subvert state power” while acquitting two others, in the largest national security case to take place in the former British colony.

The verdicts were handed down on Thursday morning local time, with sentencing to come at a later date, according to Hong Kong media.

The 16 had pleaded not guilty to charges that carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. A total of 47 pro-democracy activists had been charged following their effort to run unofficial primaries for local elections. The remaining 31 defendants in the trial did not contest the charges.

The trial has been overseen by three judges handpicked by the government to try national security cases, departing from the tradition under Hong Kong’s common law system of trial by jury. The judges cited the “involvement of foreign elements” as grounds to waive a jury trial.

The case underscores Beijing’s determination to snuff out critical voices in the once-freewheeling city, with every prominent and many moderate opposition voices in Hong Kong now either in jail or in exile.

The remaining 31 defendants, who pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to commit subversion” — including 26-year-old activist Joshua Wong and legal scholar Benny Tai, as well as other politicians, former lawmakers and unionists — will be sentenced at the end of the trial.

Many have been held in custody for the past two years, with judges expressing concern they might endanger national security if granted bail.


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The charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Beijing in 2020 imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong — which was supposed to enjoy a level of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework — after months-long pro-democracy protests across the city throughout 2019.

The law, drafted by Beijing and passed without any consultation in Hong Kong, criminalizes broadly worded crimes such as “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces.” It has transformed Hong Kong and its institutions — including schools, the media, the legislature and the courts — chipping away at the territory’s promised autonomy, which was meant to be preserved until 2047.

After the law was introduced, Tai, a legal scholar and activist who launched protests in 2014 that spiraled into a 79-day occupation of city streets, organized an unofficial primary election for activists and politicians to run in legislative council elections. He hoped to secure a majority in the legislature for pro-democracy candidates.

More than 600,000 voters took part in the citywide primary, but then the executive decided to delay the legislative election, citing issues related to the coronavirus.

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