‘Hong Kong 47’ trial: 14 pro-democracy activists found guilty of conspiracy to commit subversion

Forty-seven were charged over the holding of unofficial election primaries in 2020, with only 16 of them entering not-guilty pleas

The European Union, the United States and international human rights organisations have criticised the conviction of 14 Hong Kong democracy activists for subversion under a national-security law imposed by Beijing. The 14 were among 47 former politicians, academics, journalists and other activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion.

Thirty-one of those arrested in dawn raids three years ago pleaded guilty and two were acquitted on Thursday, the first time anyone has received a verdict other than guilty since the national-security law was imposed in 2020. Prosecutors said they would appeal the not-guilty verdicts and the two men remain on bail pending the outcome of the appeal.

Sentencing of the 14 defendants found guilty on Thursday and the 31 who pleaded guilty will take place later this summer. The offences carry penalties of between three years and life in prison. The EU said the convictions marked a further deterioration of fundamental freedoms and democratic participation in Hong Kong.

“The EU is deeply concerned about the politically motivated prosecution of the 47 pro-democracy advocates, the prolonged pretrial detention and the denial of bail for a majority of the defendants, undermining confidence in the rule of law as enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law,” European External Action Service spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said.

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“The case also puts into question Hong Kong’s commitment to openness and pluralism, which have been cornerstones of the city’s attractiveness as an international commercial and financial centre.”

The case centred on unofficial primaries organised by pro-democracy politicians in July 2020 ahead of planned legislative elections in Hong Kong. They hoped to boost their chances of winning a controlling majority in the legislature and to block government legislation until democracy activists’ demands were met.

Prosecutors argued that the plan amounted to subversion because it would block the budget and halt the functioning of the administration. The panel of three judges rejected defence arguments that the defendants did not know they were breaking the new national-security law and that the legislation required an intention to commit violence for a subversion conviction.

Amnesty International’s China director Sarah Brooks described the trial as a sham and said the verdicts sent a message to anyone who opposed the government in Hong Kong to stay quiet or face jail.

“This unprecedented mass conviction is the most ruthless illustration yet of how Hong Kong’s national-security law is weaponised to silence dissent. It represents a near-total purge of the political opposition and highlights the rapid disintegration of human rights in Hong Kong,” she said.

“To imprison these men and women, having already kept most of the 47 in pretrial detention for more than three years, is a brazen injustice. None of those convicted have committed an internationally recognised crime; they have been targeted simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and participation in public affairs.”

China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning accused foreign governments of attempting to smear Hong Kong and its justice system and expressed support for the application of the national-security law.

“Hong Kong is a society under the rule of law. To abide by the law and bring lawbreakers to justice is a basic principle. No one should be allowed to use democracy as a pretext to engage in unlawful activities and escape justice,” she said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times