Hong Kong's largest security case opens trial

Hong Kong's largest security case opens trial

Hong Kong's largest national security case was sent to trial on Tuesday after lingering 15 months in pre-trial procedures during which most of the 47 defendants were denied bail.

The pro-democracy figures were charged with conspiracy to subvert for organizing an unofficial primary election under a security law that Beijing imposed in 2020 after huge, sometimes violent democracy protests.

Subversion can carry a sentence of up to life in prison and is one of the four major crimes under the security law.

The defendants, aged between 24 and 66, include democratically elected lawmakers and district councillors, as well as unionists, academics, and others whose political stances range from modest reformists to radical localists.

The case was brought to court in March 2020 when 47 were denied bail after a four-day marathon hearing before a judge handpicked by the government to try national security cases.

Most of the pre-trial hearings over the past 15 months have been subject to reporting restrictions - with the court refusing applications from defendants and journalists for them to be lifted.

Family members and legal representatives told AFP that the opaqueness of the defendants has made them frustrated and depleted, and allowed the prosecution to move the goalposts after a three-and-a-half day hearing that began Wednesday and Thursday and ended Tuesday, all but one of the 47 defendants were committed to a senior court by Principal Magistrate Peter Law, one of the national security judges.

Last Wednesday, Law announced that seventeen defendants had been committed to trial.

Twenty-nine others - including legal scholar Benny Tai, who was also one of the leaders of the Occupy Central movement in 2014 - were committed on Monday and Tuesday.

Defendants who plead guilty to a non-guilty plea are committed to trial, and those who plead guilty commit to sentencing, according to the Magistrates Ordinance.

The one outstanding defendant will join the cohort after further proceedings before the magistrate.

Hong Kong faces scrutiny over whether its legal system can maintain its independence as China cracks down on dissent with the security law.

More than 180 people have been arrested over the past two years since the security law came into force - the bulk of them activists, unionists and journalists - and 115 have been prosecuted.

Three men were convicted and sentenced to jail for 43 months to nine years. One of them tried to appeal his 69 month sentence on Tuesday, with the court reserving judgement until early September.

The 47 defendants are the largest group in a single case under the law.

Authorities say the security law has successfully returned stability to the financial hub, which was upended for seven months in a row by large and sometimes violent protests in 2019.

Critics say it has eviscerated civil liberties and political plurality that the city used to enjoy.