Hong Kong High Court finds 14 democracy activists guilty of subversion

Trial is the biggest prosecution of activists and pro-democracy politicians in the former British colony.
By RFA Staff
2024.05.29
Bangkok
Hong Kong High Court finds 14 democracy activists guilty of subversion Police stand guard outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts building in Hong Kong, May 30, 2024.
Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Updated at 13:00 ET on May 30, 2024.

A Hong Kong court found 14 of the city’s leading democracy activists guilty of subversion on Thursday under a tough national security law imposed on the city by China four years ago in what was described by one former lawmaker as a 'political trial.'

The city's High Court acquitted two of the 16 defendants, but the city's Department of Justice said it would appeal those verdicts.

The 118-day trial is the biggest ever prosecution of pro-democracy politicians and activists in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 amid promises that it would keep the freedoms that once ensured its status as an international financial hub.

The mass arrest of 47 lawmakers, grass-roots activists and election hopefuls from Hong Kong’s now-defunct pro-democracy parties drew international condemnation in 2021.

Sixteen of the 47 defendants went on trial after pleading not guilty to the charge of "conspiracy to commit subversion," which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The other 31 defendants have already pleaded guilty to the charge, and are currently awaiting sentencing along with the rest.

The charges are based on their participation in a democratic primary election in the summer of 2020, in which some 600,000 Hong Kongers turned out to vote.

But the scheduled general election was eventually postponed while the government rewrote the rules to ensure that pro-democracy candidates wouldn't be allowed to run in future elections.

The government claims the pro-democracy camp planned to subvert its power by blocking passage of its budget through the city's Legislative Council.

Former lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung, known as "Long Hair," Lam Cheuk-ting, Helena Wong and Raymond Chan were among the 14 found guilty by three government-appointed judges and no jury.

Journalist-turned-politician Gwyneth Ho and the head of the hospital workers' union Winnie Yu were also convicted.

The panel of national security judges said the two acquitted defendants, Lee Yue-shun and Lawrence Lau, should be released on bail and report to the police every month. The Department of Justice said later on Thursday that it would appeal those verdicts.

Justice Andrew Chan set June 25 as a tentative date for the court to hear mitigating arguments from those convicted, prior to sentencing.

‘Serious criminal scheme’

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the convictions showed "the scale and the seriousness of their criminal scheme."

He said the Department of Justice had already informed the court of its intention to appeal in the case of the two acquittals.

"[The Hong Kong government] ... will do our utmost to prevent, suppress and impose punishment for acts and activities endangering national security to fulfill this justified responsibility," Lee said in a statement after the verdicts.

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Police officers stand guard outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts in Hong Kong, Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Chan Long Hei/AP)

But former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, who fled the city amid the ongoing crackdown on dissent, and who is now living in Australia, said the trial of the 47 was effectively "a political trial."

"This has been a political trial from start to finish," Hui told RFA Mandarin on Thursday. "They are arbitrarily finding excuses to convict them to meet political needs."

"The playbook here is that the Chinese government believes it necessary to round up all democrats and convict them," said Hui, who is also a lawyer. 

"The judges are merely executing the script, by finding some pretty far-fetched legal reasoning and evidence to support the idea that the democrats were trying to overthrow the regime," he said.

Australia-based lawyer and rights activist Kevin Yam said the court's interpretation and definition of what constitutes "subversion" will likely set a precedent for future cases under the 2020 National Security Law, but that the verdicts made no sense when considered alongside protection for economic, civil and political rights enshrined in the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

"What's wrong with legislators exercising their constitutional power to veto the budget?" Yam said. "The most terrifying thing about this is the fact that exercising your constitutional powers can be construed as a criminal offense."

"That's a precedent that will bring all kinds of trouble in its wake," he said. "Anyone exercising their civil rights can be deemed to be breaking the law, which means that the National Security Law can be infinitely magnified [to include anything]."

‘Bulldozing freedoms’

In Washington, the Congressional Executive Commission on China, or CECC, accused the Hong Kong government of violating its international law and treaty obligations, and "bulldozing the freedoms and rule of law that once made it so vital and prosperous."

"These verdicts are yet another sign that the Chinese Communist Party is pulling the strings, as its extreme efforts to restrict democracy and human rights now dictate Hong Kong’s political and judicial institutions," Rep. Chris Smith, who chairs the commission, and Sen. Jeff Merkley said in a statement on Thursday.

The commission called for the Biden administration to sanction the judges and prosecutors responsible for what it termed "political prosecutions" and to shut down the city's Economic and Trade Offices on American soil.

Amnesty International’s China Director Sarah Brooks called the mass conviction “the most ruthless illustration yet of how Hong Kong’s National Security Law is weaponized to silence dissent.”

She called on the international community to join Amnesty in demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the activists.

“To imprison these men and women, having already kept most of the 47 in pre-trial detention for more than three years, is a brazen injustice.

“None of those convicted have committed an internationally recognized crime; they have been targeted simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and participation in public affairs,” she said.

‘Hostile foreign forces’

Meanwhile, a government spokesman accused unidentified "external forces" of smearing the government, the police and the courts during the trial, and of trying to interfere with the trial "through intimidatory political means and misleading remarks."

Hong Kong and Chinese officials have long blamed "hostile foreign forces" for inciting several waves of mass popular protest in Hong Kong, including the 2019 protests for fully democratic elections and greater official accountability.

The verdicts show that Hong Kong is "no longer a safe place for international business,” said Benedict Rogers, chief executive officer of the London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch.

He said the prosecution had presented "bogus evidence," and that the British government should reevaluate Hong Kong's overseas privileges and expand its lifeboat British National Overseas, or BNO, visa program to help people flee the ongoing crackdown, which was recently expanded with a second national security law, known as Article 23.

According to the overseas-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, the sentences that are eventually handed down will depend on the defendants' alleged role in the primary election.

“Ringleaders” could get 10 years to life, "active participants" 3-10 years and other participants less than three years, the group said via its X account, calling on the authorities to “free all political prisoners.”

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said her government was “deeply concerned” by the verdicts, including that for one Australian citizen among them, Gordon Ng.

“Australia has expressed our strong objections to the Hong Kong authorities on the continuing broad application of national security legislation to arrest and pressure pro-democracy figures, opposition groups, media, trade unions and civil society. 

“We know that the application of these laws also has implications for individuals outside of Hong Kong, including in Australia,” she said in a statement.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Taejun Kang and Malcolm Foster.

Updates to add reaction from Hong Kong chief executive, CECC members, Hong Kong Watch CEO and adds context.

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