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Hong Kong court convicts 14 of 16 democracy activists of subversion |  Courts News

Hong Kong court convicts 14 of 16 democracy activists of subversion | Courts News

story development,

Two people were acquitted in a historic national security trial targeting democracy activists and politicians.

A Hong Kong court has found 14 out of 16 activists and politicians guilty of subversion in the largest ever trial on Chinese territory under a national security law imposed by Beijing.

The judges, designated to hear cases brought under the 2020 security law, which does not allow jury trials, shared the reasons for their decision in a 319-page document published online.

The group was among 47 people, including some of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy supporters, who were tasked during the 2020 unofficial primaries with selecting Democratic Camp candidates for the Legislative Council elections that were later postponed.

Many of them have been detained since their arrest in a pre-dawn raid in January 2021.

Two of the defendants – lawyer and former district councilor Lawrence Lau and social worker and fellow former district councilor Li Yu Xun – were acquitted, making them the first people to be acquitted of national security law charges since the legislation came into force nearly four years ago. Lau, one of the few defendants released on bail, organized his own defence.

The remaining defendants pleaded guilty.

Prosecutors alleged that the group planned to use their positions in the Legislative Council – if elected – to block Hong Kong’s annual budget, in a move that would force the city’s top leader to step down and dissolve the Legislative Council.

The judges said they had adopted a broad interpretation of the security law, and that they agreed with the prosecution that the group’s alleged plan would have led to “political instability leading to a constitutional crisis.”

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Most of the defendants have been detained since their arrest in January 2021 [Chan Long Hei/AP Photo]

In a statement following the decision, Maya Wang, acting China director for Human Rights Watch, said the ruling showed Hong Kong’s “total disdain” for democratic political processes and the rule of law.

“Democracy is not a crime, no matter what the Chinese government and its carefully chosen Hong Kong court may say,” Wang said. Beijing has promised the people of Hong Kong universal suffrage. It is Beijing that must bear responsibility for repeatedly reneging on these promises, and for blatantly erasing basic human rights guaranteed in Hong Kong’s laws and functional constitution.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International’s China director, Sarah Brooks, said the decision was “the harshest illustration yet” that the security law “is being used as a weapon to silence dissent.”

Judgment

Beijing imposed the national security law following mass protests in 2019 that were sparked by government plans to allow extradition to the mainland, where courts are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, but evolved into calls for greater democracy and investigations into police brutality. .

In the district council elections that year, pro-democracy candidates won by a landslide, and they hoped to build on this support to win more seats in the Legislative Council elections that were scheduled for September 2020. The government later resorted to emergency laws to postpone the elections by the end of the year . A year ago, before Beijing changed electoral rules to further limit the number of directly elected seats and ensure that only candidates deemed “patriotic” could run.

Nearly 300 people have been arrested under the colonial-era security or sedition law, and Hong Kong in March pushed through a domestic national security bill, known as Section 23, which it said was needed to “plug loopholes.”

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The trial of the 47 will now move to the sentencing and mitigation phase when judges consider the circumstances of each defendant.

Experts previously told Al Jazeera that the process could take up to six months, and any defendants granted bail could have it revoked.

Lawrence Lau speaks to the media.  He wears a striped suit and holds a document.  Journalists are all around him.  Some are equipped with cameras.
Lawyer and former district councilor Lawrence Lau (centre) was one of the two people acquitted. He defended himself [Peter Parks/AFP]

Those deemed “main criminals” or identified as leaders face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment under the security law. Lower-level “offenders” can be sentenced to three to ten years in prison for “active” participation, while “other participants” can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

Pleading guilty usually results in a reduced sentence for defendants, but it is unclear whether the National Security Court will follow the convention.

The 47 people range in age from their 20s to their late 60s, and include some of Hong Kong’s most prominent opposition figures, including Benny Tai, 59, a legal scholar and one of the alleged organizers; Democratic activist Joshua Wong, 27; Journalist and former lawmaker Claudia Mo, 67; and lifelong activist Leung Kwok Hong, 68, popularly known as Long Hair.

One of them, Gordon Ing, is an Australian citizen. Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong said Australia was “deeply concerned” by the rulings and would continue to raise the issue with officials in China and Hong Kong.

“Australia has expressed our strong objections to the Hong Kong authorities to the continued widespread application of national security legislation to arrest and pressure pro-democracy figures, opposition groups, the media, trade unions and civil society,” it said in a statement.

Owen Chow, who pleaded not guilty, remained steadfast after the verdict.

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“The future cannot be predicted, and life is still full of uncertainties, but the only principle that does not change is faith and belief,” he wrote in a message on Facebook.