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Hong Kong Court hears final arguments in trial of pro-democracy activists

The activist Grandma Wong protested outside the West Kowloon courts (AP)
The activist Grandma Wong protested outside the West Kowloon courts (AP)

A Hong Kong court has started hearing the final arguments of some of the city’s best-known pro-democracy activists being tried under a law imposed by China’s ruling Communist Party to crush dissent.

The activists’ subversion trial is the biggest prosecution yet under the law. They could face up to life in prison if convicted.

The defendants are among 47 activists arrested in 2021 under the sweeping national security law imposed following massive anti-government protests four years ago.

They were charged in connection with an informal 2020 primary election to choose candidates who could win control of the territory’s Legislative Council.

Prosecutors accuse the activists of trying to paralyse Hong Kong’s government and topple the city’s leader by securing a majority to veto budgets.

Lee Yue-shun
Pro-democracy activist Lee Yue-shun arrives at the West Kowloon court (AP)

In court, prosecutor Jonathan Man argued that unlawful means to subvert state power did not necessarily imply the use of force or physical violence.

He said: “(In) the 21st century, social media, communications to the public is much easier and convenient,” adding that it was easy to “manipulate” those channels for some “to endanger national security”.

The subversion trial involves many of the city’s most prominent activists, including legal scholar Benny Tai, former student leader Joshua Wong and former opposition party leaders Wu Chi-wai and Alvin Yeung.

Most of the 47 activists have been detained without bail for more than two years. Others were granted bail based on strict conditions.

Thirty-one, including Tai, Wong, Wu and Yeung, entered guilty pleas in court, while 16 others pleaded not guilty in February.

Grandma Wong
A police officer holds a British flag brought by a pro-democracy activist known as Grandma Wong outside the court (AP)

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

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

The trial is widely considered as part of Beijing’s crackdown on the former British colony’s once-vibrant pro-democracy movement.

After the introduction of the law – which critics say is eroding the autonomy promised when Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 – many pro-democracy politicians and activists were jailed, went into self-exile, or disappeared from the city’s political scene.

A large number of young professionals and middle-class families also emigrated due to the erosion of Western-style civil liberties with the Chinese government’s crackdown on the territory.

The national security law criminalises secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city’s affairs as well as terrorism.

Apart from the activists, pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai is also facing collusion charges under the law.