Hong Kong: 14 activists found guilty of conspiracy to commit subversion in largest trial against pro-democracy movement

Those sentenced, who face life sentences, are part of the movement that was trying to hold primary elections to achieve an alternative majority to the Chinese regime.

(AFP) A Hong Kong court found 14 people guilty of subversion on Thursday in the largest trial against pro-democracy activists since China imposed a national security law on this city to eliminate dissent.

The fourteen defendants, in addition to 31 others who had previously pleaded guilty, face life sentences. The sentences will be communicated this year.

In 2020, the central government in Beijing imposed a strict national security law on Hong Kong in response to large pro-democracy protests that had paralyzed this international financial center the previous year. Under this law, the authorities prosecuted 47 opponents (known as "the Hong Kong 47") accused of "conspiracy for subversion" for having organized an unofficial primary election that, according to the accusation, sought to overthrow the Government.

Of them, 31 pleaded guilty in the hope that this would mitigate the sentence.

The verdict for the other 16, including activists, former legislators and former district councilors, was announced this Thursday. At the beginning of the hearing, Judge Andrew Chan named the 14 defendants who were found guilty. Only two former district councilors were acquitted by the court. Hong Kong Justice Secretary Maggie Yang announced to the court that they will appeal the decision. One of the former district councilors who was found not guilty, Lawrence Lau, asked as he left the court that "everyone remain concerned for our friends in the case."

In a brief summary of the verdict published by the court, the judges stated that the 14 had conspired to undermine "the power and authority of the government and the chief executive" of the city. "In our view, this would create a constitutional crisis for Hong Kong," they argued.

Most of the accused have been detained since March 2021, when they were first brought to justice.

The trial was held without a jury and was conducted by a panel of three judges chosen from a group of jurists hand-picked by the leader of the semi-autonomous Government of Hong Kong.

"Trial of the pro-democracy movement" in Hong Kong

Prosecutors accused the 47 of conspiring to subvert power by organizing an unofficial primary election with the aim of achieving a majority in the city's legislative body. Had they controlled this chamber, they would have been able to veto the government budget and force the chief executive to accept key demands presented by protesters in 2019, the prosecution argued in court.

The defense argued that Hong Kong's mini-constitution provides mechanisms to carry out this plan and that the case "was a purely political matter, rather than a legal matter."

In front of the court, members of the League of Social Democrats - one of the few remaining opposition voices in Hong Kong - tried to hold a small protest but were prevented. "We just wanted to express our opinion. I don't know why the police prevent us from doing so. Hong Kong should be a place with freedom of expression and assembly," claimed Chan Po-ying, president of the movement.

Analyst Eric Lai of Georgetown University's Asian Law Center told AFP that the process is "a trial of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement."

Diplomatic representatives from France, Italy and the European Union attended Thursday's hearing and the Australian government expressed "strong objections" to the guilty pleas.

The United States and other Western countries criticized China for repressing the pro-democracy movement and curtailing the freedoms promised when it regained control of the former British colony in 1997.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed its "firm opposition" to the criticism and called on those who level it to "immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs."

Before this Thursday's verdict, 114 activists had been found guilty of crimes linked to the national security law imposed in 2020.