Hong Kong, February 6. At 5 in the morning, a hundred people are already in line waiting outside West Kowloon Court to attend the largest trial ever held in the city against democracy activists since Beijing’s stranglehold on political freedoms. The atmosphere is tense and the police are on alert. Officers deployed near the courthouse are wearing bulletproof vests. The surrounding streets are dotted with checkpoints. The authorities monitor the area with armored vehicles, while the dog units make sure there are no explosives in and around the courthouse. And even a helicopter flies over the area.
Many spent the night behind the barriers and the security cordon installed by the authorities. Shortly before the doors open, some demonstrators stage a protest organized by the League of Social Democrats – the last political party left in the city to fight for democracy – led by Chan Po-ying, wife of one of the defendants, the former deputy Leung Kwok-hung, known as “the long hair”. The riots feared by the authorities did not break out, but the police stopped a demonstrator, the vice president of the Dickson Chau Ka-fat party, accused of violating the rules on the use of the mask. Meanwhile, however, the clock strikes 10 and entry into the building is finally allowed. The entire fourth floor has been reserved for the hearing, another sign of the nervousness of the local government. Outside, among those present, there are also some foreign diplomats, representatives of the consulates of the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic, France and even Italy. Then it’s the defendants’ turn.
They call them the “Hong Kong 47”: some are seasoned politicians, others veterans of the protests against Beijing, still others academics, trade unionists and even health workers. They have little in common, they belong to different generations (ranging from 24 to 66 years old) and to different political cultures, but the regime considers them all a danger to national security or rather to the Chinese Communist Party’s control over the former British colony.
Arrested in January two years ago, they are accused of organizing unauthorized primaries before the 2020 elections, in which over 600,000 people participated. It was, as prosecutors put it in the 139-page indictment, a “massive and well-prepared plan to overthrow the Hong Kong government.” Already in 2019, the opposition had won a stunning victory in the elections for district councils, obtaining 390 seats out of 452. An important result despite the limited power of local assemblies. With the primaries, however, he intended to prepare to win contestable seats in the Legislative Council, the city’s parliament (at the time, however, half-controlled by appointed deputies loyal to Beijing, 35 out of 70). Small detail: in the end, the elections were not held that year, officially due to Covid, and were only organized in December 2021, after a disputed electoral reform which effectively made it impossible for the opposition to win and was limited to less than a quarter ( 20 out of 90) the eligible seats.
At the same time, repression began, as required by the national security law approved in May 2020 by Beijing, up to the first trials. And this is the biggest and most important, not only because of the number of accused but because they represent a cross-section of the opposition in Beijing. In fact, among them are former MPs Helena Wong Pik-wan, Lam Cheuk-ting, Raymond Chan Chi-chuen and Leung Kwok-hung, as well as journalist Gwyneth Ho, trade unionist Winnie Yu Wai-ming, well-known jurist Benny Tai and all 26-year-old activist Joshua Wong. All well-known figures on the local political scene.
Two years of ordeal
The first to enter the courtroom are the defendants released on bail. Then it’s up to everyone else, taken to court in small groups. Of the 47 defendants, 31 have already pleaded guilty, including Joshua Wong and Benny Tai. For them it will only be a question of waiting for the end of the trial to know the extent of the sentence. The other sixteen, including Raymond Chan and Gwyneth Ho, are awaiting trial. All risk a life sentence, but have been in prison for some time.
The judicial ordeal of the “47 of Hong Kong” has been going on for two years now. It all started on January 6, 2021, when the defendants were arrested in a series of dawn raids by the police. Since then, before the hearing on February 6, 2023, they have been summoned to court seven times for the preliminary investigation phase and the proceedings have been postponed six times. First, the defendants asked – in 14 separate hearings – to be released on bail, as required by the common law system in force in Hong Kong, but only 15 defendants were granted bail, two of which however were arrested again for posting critical comments on social media and for making “subversive” speeches. They then fought for the hearings and all related information to be made public, a goal they achieved only in August last year, when a High Court judge reversed an order given to the media not to publish details of the case. Since then, pending the opening of the actual trial and in defiance of the heavy climate against the independent newspapers, the reports on the case have started again.
But now the wait is over. In the next 90 days they will be judged, as required by the national security law, by a panel of three judges of the High Court, Andrew Chan Hing-wai, Alex Lee Wan-tang and Johnny Chan Jong-herng, and not by a jury, as usually provided in common law systems. The first hearing lasted just over a couple of hours. After reading the allegations in Chinese and English, the defendants proceeded to plead not guilty. Only two, among those who hadn’t already done so, pleaded guilty. One, Ng Kin-wai, thus addressed the judges: “I failed to overthrow the totalitarian state and I plead guilty to the charges.” Soon after the hearing, Ng Kin-wai was subjected to disciplinary measures once he returned to prison, which made the activists cry out for state revenge. But, beyond the single gesture of protest, nothing else of significance took place during the hearing, postponed to February 14 when the prosecutor Anthony Chau Tin-hang gave the opening speech and the judging panel listened four defendants called to testify in court for the prosecution. In short, it’s not over. Especially for Beijing.
The price of repression
Before the 47, only three people were tried in Hong Kong under the national security law. Two were sentenced to no less than 9 years in prison. Another, activist Tony Chung, who pleaded guilty in 2022, was sentenced to 3 years and 4 months in prison, the lightest sentence so far issued in similar cases. But none of them had such prominent political profiles as the defendants in the recently opened case at West Kowloon Court.
In all, according to data collected by Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, since the entry into force of the freedom-killing law wanted by Beijing to December 31, 2022, the police have arrested 227 people, criminally prosecuting 135 of them, including political activists, journalists, academics , students and ordinary citizens. More than half of those arrested have been denied bail and most have been awaiting trial for more than a year. In all, the police arrested more than 10,000 people and more than 2,000 protesters suffered short prison terms.
Not even the media were saved from Beijing’s repressive ax. In fact, a trial for subversion is currently underway against Stand News, a newspaper that is now closed and in which the journalist and defendant with the 47, Gwyneth Ho worked. Not only. By the end of the year, former media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of the tabloid Apple Daily forced to close a year and a half ago by the Chinese authorities, will also be tried under the new law that has crushed civil liberties and criminalized dissent. Sentence seems all but assured, given that six former employees of the newspaper have already pleaded guilty. Meanwhile, in January, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange delisted Jimmy Lai’s publishing company Next Digital, which holds 71.26 percent of the shares, causing economic damage estimated at over 90 million euros.
The judicial repression thus replaced the batons. In fact, the new law introduced four new crimes: separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. All cases defined in a non-specific way and applicable to many non-violent activities carried out by the opposition. So much so that even a post on social media, a public speech or the organization of primary consultations are considered a threat to the security of the regime, which does not intend to stop.
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