Home Economy News Hong Kong democrats brace for landmark verdict after lengthy legal battle

Hong Kong democrats brace for landmark verdict after lengthy legal battle

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By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s High Court is set hand down a verdict this week against 16 democrats in a landmark subversion trial that critics say could have major repercussions for the city’s opposition democratic movement and the global financial hub’s reputation.

The verdict comes more than three years after police arrested 47 democrats in mass dawn raids at homes across Hong Kong, later charging them with “conspiracy to commit subversion” under a China-imposed national security law.

The criminal trial is the biggest ever against Hong Kong’s democratic opposition and is being closely watched internationally, with diplomats from the U.S., Britain and Europe having attended court proceedings.

So far, 31 of the 47 democrats have pleaded guilty, while 16 maintain their innocence. Four defendants have become prosecution witnesses.

Mass pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019 over new laws planned by Beijing, which democrats argued infringed on freedoms guaranteed when Hong Kong was handed back to China by the British in 1997.

Known as the 47 democrats case, the charges centre around an unofficial primary election in July 2020 that prosecutors called a “vicious plot” to paralyse government.

The democrats maintain it was an unofficial attempt to select the strongest candidates for a citywide election in a bid to win a historic majority in the legislature.

High Court Judges Alex Lee, Andrew Chan and Johnny Chan are expected to deliver their verdict during hearings scheduled for Thursday and Friday, according to the judiciary website.

Most of the accused have been detained for more than 1,000 days since Feb. 28, 2021, and were subjected to marathon bail hearings.

Countries including the U.S. have criticised the trial as politically motivated, and have called for the accused to be immediately released.

Beijing says the national security laws have brought stability to Hong Kong after months-long, sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in 2019 and that human rights are respected.

Should the democrats be convicted, jail terms will range from a minimum three years for participants, to life imprisonment for “principal” offenders.

Those who have pleaded guilty include former law scholar Benny Tai, whom the prosecution called a “mastermind” of the “conspiracy”, and activist Joshua Wong. They will be sentenced after the trial.

The legal saga, regardless of the outcome, has marginalised Hong Kong’s once lively democratic opposition that had strived for decades to pressure Beijing to allow full democracy.

“Although he (Leung) might not be well emotionally, and still not yet adapted to prison life … he always told me that he’s innocent,” Chan Po-ying, the wife of Leung Kwok-hung, the oldest defendant at 68, told Reuters.

Among what critics say was a number of key departures from the city’s common law tradition, the trial was refused a jury by the Secretary of Justice Paul Lam, citing “involvement of foreign elements”. Only 13 of the 47 democrats were granted bail.

Trevor Beel, a lawyer representing activist Gwyneth Ho, 33, argued the democrats had not considered what they were doing was unlawful.

“Everything was conducted openly for the simple reason that no one believed what they were doing was illegal,” Beel said.

Lee Yue-Shun, another defendant and former member of the now disbanded pro-democracy party, the Civic Party, wrote on his Facebook (NASDAQ:META) that serving people as a social worker while on bail had empowered him, but the upcoming verdict still weighed heavily.

“It’s like using one hand to cover my own wounds, and using another hand to continue to support others.”

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