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Hong Kong Convicts 14 Activists, Acquits 2 in ‘Trial of the Pro-Democracy Movement’

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Hong Kong made its first acquittals under the national security law while finding 14 opposition figures guilty in a landmark case, ending a conviction streak that fueled doubts over the city’s judicial independence.

Judges in the once-freewheeling finance hub found 14 out of 16 defendants guilty of subversion charges under a 2020 national security law imposed by Beijing. Two of the defendants were found not guilty because the court was uncertain about their roles and intent in the alleged crime, according to the ruling on Thursday.

Read More: Meet the Young People at the Heart of Hong Kong’s Rebellion

“The acquittals were a surprise,” said Chong Ja-Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “The signal is that the courts perhaps still exercise some degree of independence despite the overarching nature of the security laws and the desire of the Hong Kong government to push for prosecution.”

The 16 defendants who received their verdicts were among 47 who were accused of conspiring to subvert state power by holding unofficial primary elections. The rest of them previously pleaded guilty, including prominent activist Joshua Wong and former lawmaker Claudia Mo. The convicted face a maximum penalty of life in prison and will be sentenced at a later date.

The defendants had hoped to secure a majority in the former British colony’s legislature that would have given them the power to block the city leader’s agenda—and theoretically force the chief executive to resign.

“This is a trial of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong,” said Eric Lai, research fellow at Georgetown Center for Asian Law. “The court verdict would set examples of whether non-violent assemblies or civil voting, activities that have a long tradition in Hong Kong, are now deemed national security crimes.”

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Those found guilty include former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Long Hair, and journalist-turned-activist Gwyneth Ho. 

Former district councilors Lawrence Lau and Lee Yue-shun were freed following their acquittals, the government said it would appeal their verdicts. Some supporters hugged and cheered for Lau and Lee as they walked out of the courtroom in West Kowloon Law Courts.

Judges said they were “not sure” that Lau had the intention to subvert state power at any stage of the political scheme. They accepted Lau’s defense that he didn’t pay much attention to the primary elections and never advocated vetoing government budgets in his campaign. 

They also couldn’t establish Lee’s involvement in the plot, noting that he didn’t join meetings to coordinate the polls or personally express support using vetoing power to force the government to accept protesters’ requests, which included releasing jailed protesters and free elections of Hong Kong’s leader.

Still, the verdicts were mostly a victory for a government determined to crack down on political dissent, after China’s sweeping national security law silenced street protests and pressured dozens of opposition groups to disband. They were handed down by three High Court judges selected from a panel handpicked by the city’s former leader.

Read More: How Beijing’s National Security Crackdown Transformed Hong Kong in a Single Month

Sarah Brooks, China director at Amnesty International, said in a statement the mass conviction was a “near-total purge of the political opposition and highlights the rapid disintegration of human rights in Hong Kong.”

More than 200 members of public watched the trial at the court in western Kowloon, with some lining up overnight. Diplomats including those from the E.U., France and U.S. were among foreign representatives observing the hearing.

Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, said the Australian government was “deeply concerned” by the verdicts, including the conviction of Gordon Ng, an Australian citizen. Ng was not a candidate in the unsanctioned primaries but urged the public to vote for their winners in the official legislative elections, according to the ruling.

Most defendants were denied bail since their arrests three years ago. The severity of punishments will reflect the extent of pressure faced by courts to “fully toe the government’s line on all elements of the national security law,” said Thomas Kellogg, executive director at Georgetown Center for Asian Law.

The rulings come as authorities seek to burnish the city’s reputation as a destination for businesses and tourists after its image was dented by its pandemic self-isolation and political unrest.

Authorities signaled its intent to continue cracking down on perceived threats this week by using a new national security law for the first time, arresting an imprisoned former activist for allegedly making seditious Facebook posts from behind bars with the help of others.

At least 299 people have been arrested and 159 charged under the national security law or a colonial-era sedition law since July 2020, according to research by ChinaFile and data compiled by Bloomberg. That includes Jimmy Lai, the 76-year-old media mogul who faces life in prison in a months-long trial over security charges.

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