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Monday, March 4, 2024

Final debates begin in largest-ever national security trial in Hong Kong

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HONG KONG—Hong Kong’s largest-ever national security trial begins final arguments Wednesday, more than 1,000 days after the case against 47 democracy activists under the Beijing-imposed law began.

The defendants represent a cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition—including activists Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, professor Benny Tai and former lawmakers Claudia Mo and Au Nok-hin.

They are charged with “conspiracy to subvert state power” for organizing, joining and supporting an unofficial primary election in July 2020 to shortlist the opposition camp’s candidates for the city’s legislature election.

The offense carries up to life in prison under the sweeping national security law that was enacted on the financial hub in 2020 to quell dissent following huge, sometimes violent democracy protests starting a year earlier.

Prosecutors allege the defendants planned to obtain a legislature majority with the primary winners, then force the government to meet the “five demands” raised by protesters in 2019.

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The demands included launching an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality against protesters and gaining universal suffrage for both the city’s leader and lawmakers.

Prosecutors also allege the defendants intended to veto the government’s budgets with the intent of forcing the chief executive to step down.

According to the Basic Law — the semi-autonomous city’s mini-constitution — Hong Kong’s leader can dismiss the legislature if the budget is vetoed.

If the same budget is struck down again by newly elected lawmakers, the chief executive must resign.

“It had all along been their intentions to use vetoing the budgets… as a means to create an unprecedented constitutional crisis, paralyse the government, and/or bring about political instability in Hong Kong with a view to subverting the state power,” prosecutors wrote in their written submission seen by AFP.

“The crime lies in the agreement itself,” the prosecution argued.

The group of 47 were first charged in March 2021. Most were denied bail and have since remained in jail. Thirty-one defendants pleaded guilty.

The trial has been conducted without a jury — a major departure from the city’s 178-year-old common law tradition — as ordered by the secretary for justice to prevent risks including the “involvement of foreign elements”.

Three senior High Court judges handpicked by the government to try security cases were assigned instead.

In October, a group of UN human rights experts expressed concerns about the trial.

“We are very troubled about the use of mass trials in NSL cases and how they may negatively affect safeguards that ensure due process and the right to fair trial,” the experts said.

The last round of debates — also known as the closing submissions — is expected to last 10 days before the court adjourns to consider the verdict.

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