Hong Kong democracy campaigners to receive verdicts

A Hong Kong court is set to deliver verdicts in the city's biggest case against democracy campaigners since China imposed a national security law (Peter PARKS)
A Hong Kong court is set to deliver verdicts in the city's biggest case against democracy campaigners since China imposed a national security law (Peter PARKS)

A Hong Kong court will convene Thursday morning to deliver verdicts in the city's biggest case against pro-democracy campaigners since China imposed a national security law to crush dissent.

Three High Court judges are expected to take up to two days to deliver the verdicts, with the 47 defendants facing life in jail on subversion charges.

By 6 am, a queue of about two dozen people hoping to attend the hearing had formed outside the court building, some having waited overnight.

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 the 47 opposition figures from across the political spectrum with "conspiracy to subversion", saying their political activities were aimed at bringing down the government.

Sixteen defendants -- including activists, former lawmakers and district councillors -- have contested the charges and will receive verdicts.

The other 31 pleaded guilty, hoping for lenient sentences.

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

Thursday's verdicts will show whether Hong Kong considers non-violent political participation a crime, according to Eric Lai, a research fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Asian Law.

The defendants are "significant leading figures in Hong Kong's opposition movement," Lai told AFP, calling it "a trial of the pro-democracy movement of Hong Kong".

The 16 people who will receive verdicts include veteran pro-democracy ex-lawmakers Ray Chan and "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung as well as former journalist Gywneth Ho.

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

If convicted, the campaigners are expected to be sentenced this year.

Prosecutors said the 47 had conspired to subvert state power by holding unofficial primary polls, as part of their plan to coordinate an electoral takeover of the legislature.

Once in power, they would use their majority to veto government budgets and force the city's leader to accede to five key demands raised by protesters in 2019, the court heard.

Defence lawyers have argued Hong Kong's mini-constitution had laid out mechanisms for such a plan and that the matter was "a purely political issue rather than a legal matter".

Outside the court Thursday, Kathy, one of the 610,000 voters who cast their ballots in the unofficial primary election in 2020, said she believed the defendants "never committed any crime".

"For me, the primary election was simply an occasion to show my support for something I believe in," she said, declining to provide her full name.

University student Lam said the primary election was a strategy "common in many places around the world".

"I still can't figure out how it can subvert the state, so I want to see how the court would rule on that," he said.

The case has been closely watched by the international community.

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.