14 Hong Kong democracy campaigners found guilty of subversion

Police try to control media personnel outside the court in Hong Kong on May 30, 2024 (Peter PARKS)
Police try to control media personnel outside the court in Hong Kong on May 30, 2024 (Peter PARKS)

A Hong Kong court found 14 people guilty of subversion on Thursday in the biggest case against pro-democracy campaigners since China imposed a national security law to crush dissent.

The 14, along with 31 others who pleaded guilty, could face life in jail, with sentencing expected later this year.

Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 after huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests brought the finance hub to a standstill.

Authorities then charged 47 people from a wide cross-section of society with subversion, saying their political activities were aimed at bringing down the government.

Sixteen defendants -- including activists, former lawmakers and district councillors -- had pleaded not guilty.

Judge Andrew Chan on Thursday named the 14 defendants who were found guilty. Two former district councillors were found not guilty.

In a judgement released by the court, it said the 14 had planned to undermine "the power and authority of both the Government and Chief Executive".

"In our view... that would create a constitutional crisis for Hong Kong," it said.

Most of the defendants had been kept behind bars since they were first brought to court in March 2021.

The trial was held without a jury and the judges were chosen from a pool of jurists handpicked by Hong Kong's leader.

The 31 who pleaded guilty had done so hoping for lenient sentences.

Lawrence Lau, one of the defendants found not guilty, told reporters as he left the court to keep supporting the rest of the group.

"I hope that everyone will continue to (have) concern for our other friends in the case," he said.

- 'Let them go home' -

Prosecutors said the 47 had conspired to subvert state power by holding unofficial primary polls, as part of their plan to form a majority in the legislature.

They would then veto government budgets and force the city's leader to accede to demands raised by protesters in 2019 and ultimately to step down, the court heard.

Defence lawyers argued Hong Kong's mini-constitution allowed for such manoeuvring and that the matter was "a purely political issue rather than a legal matter".

But in its judgement Thursday, the court said that if the defendants had agreed to "indiscriminately" veto the budget in an effort to coerce the government to accede to their demands, "that would constitute an abuse of their power".

Outside the court Thursday, the League of Social Democrats -- one of the last few remaining opposition voices in Hong Kong -- attempted to stage a small protest but was ushered inside.

"We just want to express our opinion, I don't know why police are hindering us... Hong Kong should still be a place with freedom of expression and of assembly," said chairperson Chan Po-ying, who is also the wife of defendant "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung.

"In today's Hong Kong, you can't even voice your opinion," said Tsang Kin-shing, who was with the group.

"Our stance today is simple. We hope the judges will make a wise decision and free all defendants, to let them go home."

Chan and three others "were arrested while protesting" outside the court, activist Figo Chan later posted on Facebook. AFP has requested confirmation from the police of the arrests.

Well-known activist Alexandra Wong, also known as Grandma Wong, also attempted to stage a protest before police moved her across the street to a fenced-off area.

"Immediately release the 47!" she shouted, waving a British flag. "Support democracy, support the 47!"

The case has been closely watched by the international community, with diplomatic officers from the consulates of Britain, France, the European Union and Italy going to the court on Thursday.

"The UK government has been clear in expressing our concern over the erosion of meaningful political opposition in Hong Kong, as demonstrated by the NSL47 case," the British Consulate-General said in a statement to AFP, referring to the high-profile trial.

The United States and other Western nations have criticised China for cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong and curtailing freedoms promised when the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997.

In response to the 2021 arrests of the defendants, the United States had sanctioned six Chinese and Hong Kong officials.

Before Thursday, 114 people had been found guilty of crimes related to the national security law since it was introduced.

The case against the group of 47 was the biggest under the law.