Closing arguments begin in trial of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists

<span>Photograph: Louise Delmotte/AP</span>
Photograph: Louise Delmotte/AP

The long-running national security trial of a group of pro-democracy figures known as the Hong Kong 47 began hearing closing arguments on Wednesday, more than 1,000 days after the accused were first arrested and after 10 months of hearings.

The trial is Hong Kong’s biggest since authorities introduced the national security law in June 2020. Ten days have been allowed for closing arguments and on Wednesday one of the judges, Andrew Chan, said a verdict was “tentatively” three or four months away.

More than 50 pro-democracy politicians, activists, campaigners and candidates were arrested in February 2021 over the holding of unofficial pre-election primary polls, which authorities later deemed to have been illegal despite opposing parties having held unofficial primaries in past elections.

Police charged 47 of this cohort with “conspiracy to subvert state power” over their intention to find the best candidates and have them win a majority of seats in the unicameral parliament. The prosecutors alleged that the democrats would then have sought to “indiscriminately veto” government budgets to push the government to respond to the demands of democratic protesters, with a view to subvert state power, or force Hong Kong’s leader to resign.

In closing submissions, the prosecutor, Jonathan Man, argued that it was quite clear that acts of subversion had taken place, even without actual violence.

“Nowadays physical violence would not be necessary” to conduct subversion, Man told the court, saying such acts were often carried out through digital means, including social media. “Communication with the public is much easier; [it’s] easy to manipulate those means in order to endanger national security,” he said.

One of the defence lawyers, Randy Shek, representing the activists Gordon Ng and Winnie Yu, said during Wednesday’s hearing that his clients had simply been seeking to hold those in power to account, and “that could be not subversion”.

If found guilty, the accused could face up to life in prison under the national security law, a sweeping piece of legislation imposed by Beijing with the Hong Kong government’s blessing after the 2019 pro-democracy protests that brought the semi-autonomous city to frequent standstills.

The law broadly outlaws acts of subversion, sedition, foreign collusion and terrorism. It has been widely criticised for its vague definitions and claims of global jurisdiction. The Hong Kong government has been accused of wielding it to crush dissent and opposition.

Outside the court building, Alexandra Wong, a pro-democracy activist popularly known as Grandma Wong, held a placard that read “Free 47, Free All” and waved a British flag to show her support to those on trial.

More than 260 people have been arrested under the national security law, of whom 148 have been charged. More than 100 have been convicted and there have been no acquittals, according to research published by ChinaFile. There are 45 currently on trial.

Kevin Yam, an Australian lawyer and former Hong Kong resident who is the subject of a Hong Kong arrest warrant over his activism, noted that the defendants had been in custody for more than 1,000 days.

“Not only is this a travesty in itself but it is also a high-profile example of how bogged down the justice system overall is in Hong Kong, with both criminal and civil cases often taking years to reach a resolution,” he said.

Like many of the thousands of cases resulting from the crackdown on protesters, this case has been beset by lengthy delays and concerns over defendant rights. Sixteen have been on trial having pleaded not guilty. The remaining 31 will not be sentenced until after the trial is complete. Most have remained in jail; just 13 were granted bail.

Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist; the activists Owen Chow and Gordon Ng; and Leung Kwok-hung, Lam Cheuk-ting and Helena Wong, former democratic lawmakers, are among those who pleaded not guilty.

Those who have pleaded guilty include a law professor, Benny Tai, the activist Joshua Wong, and Claudia Mo, a legislator. Four who pleaded guilty have become prosecution witnesses.

The election was delayed by the Hong Kong government, citing the pandemic. It was eventually held in May 2022 after a comprehensive overhaul of the electoral system that largely prevent pro-democracy candidates from running. The government said it was designed to ensure that only “patriots” could run Hong Kong.