Hong Kong court convicts 14 of 16 democracy activists of subversion | Courts News

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Two people were acquitted in a historic national security trial targeting democracy activists and politicians.

A Hong Kong court has found 14 out of 16 activists and politicians guilty of subversion in the largest ever trial on Chinese territory under a national security law imposed by Beijing.

The judges, designated to hear cases brought under the 2020 security law, which does not allow for jury trials, shared the reasons for their decision in a 319-page document posted online.

The group was among 47 people, including some of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy supporters, who were tasked during a 2020 informal primary with selecting candidates for the Legislative Council elections that were later postponed.

Many of them have been detained since their arrest in a pre-dawn raid in January 2021.

Two of the defendants – lawyer and former district councilor Lawrence Lau and social worker and fellow former district councilor Li Yu-chun – were acquitted, making them the first people to be acquitted of national security law charges since the legislation came into effect nearly four years ago. Lau, one of the few defendants released on bail, organized his own defence.

The remaining defendants pleaded guilty.

In a statement following the decision, Maya Wang, acting China director for Human Rights Watch, said the ruling showed “utter disdain” for democratic political processes and the rule of law.

“Democracy is not a crime, no matter what the Chinese government and its carefully chosen Hong Kong court may say,” Wang said. Beijing has promised the people of Hong Kong universal suffrage. It is Beijing that must bear responsibility for repeatedly reneging on these promises, and for blatantly erasing basic human rights guaranteed in Hong Kong’s laws and functional constitution.

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Beijing imposed the national security law following mass protests in 2019 that were sparked by government plans to allow extradition to the mainland, where courts are under Communist Party control, but evolved into calls for greater democracy and investigations into police brutality.

In that year’s local council elections, pro-democracy candidates won overwhelmingly, and they hoped to build on this support to win more seats in the September 2020 Legislative Council elections. The government later invoked emergency laws to postpone this vote for a year. It later changed electoral rules to ensure that only candidates considered “patriotic” could run.

The court witnessed a heavy police presence outside the court while people lined up to hear the ruling.

The trial will now move to the sentencing and mitigation phase when judges consider the circumstances of each defendant.

Experts previously told Al Jazeera that this process could take up to six months, and any defendants granted bail could have it revoked.

Those deemed “main criminals” or identified as leaders face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment under the security law. Lower-level “offenders” can be sentenced to three to ten years in prison for “active” participation, while “other participants” can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

Pleading guilty usually results in a reduced sentence for defendants, but it is unclear whether the National Security Court will follow the convention.

The 47 people range in age from their 20s to their late 60s, and include some of Hong Kong’s most prominent opposition figures including Benny Tai, 59, a legal scholar and one of the alleged organisers; Democratic activist Joshua Wong, 27; Journalist and former lawmaker Claudia Mo, 67; and lifelong activist Leung Kwok Hong, 68, popularly known as “Long Hair”.

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