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Trial of 16 democracy activists begins in Hong Kong's largest national security prosecution

Axios logo: MainLogo Axios 2/7/2023 Han Chen
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Hong Kong's largest national security trial opened on Monday for 16 prominent pro-democracy activists facing subversion charges under a 2020 law that stifled political dissent.

Why it matters: The trial, which is expected to last three months, will signal how the Hong Kong legal system will prosecute once-protected rights under Beijing's tightening grip.

Details: The 16 defendants standing trial are among 47 activists charged in 2021 with "conspiracy to commit subversion," for organizing an unofficial primary the year before to nominate opposition candidates for a legislative election.

  • Their trial is first because they have pleaded not guilty, which could lead to longer sentences if convicted. The three presiding judges were appointed under the National Security Law (NSL), and the trial will not have a jury, AFP reported.
  • The defendants mirror the diverse backgrounds of Hong Kong's political opposition, including former journalist and social activist Gwyneth Ho, former district council member Tat Cheng and former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung.
  • The other 31 defendants who have pleaded guilty, including pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong and prominent legal scholar Benny Tai, will be sentenced following the trial for those who have pleaded not guilty, local media reported.

Background: Hong Kong enacted the national security law in 2020 under Beijing's pressure after widespread protests in 2019 of proposed extradition law amendments that would allow Hong Kong to send people to mainland China to stand trial. The proposal was later scrapped following the public outcry.

  • The law imposes harsh penalties on acts of dissent, including damaging government buildings and sabotaging transport, gives Beijing the power to intervene in local national security cases, and allows China's security forces to operate openly in Hong Kong.

What to watch: Some defendants have been jailed for almost two years without trial. Critics have attributed the long delay to a lack of evidence, VOA reported. The court has been told at least three of the 47 activists will testify against their peers as prosecution witnesses, which could further complicate the trial.

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Mia Vallo

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