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Hong Kong’s largest national security trial of 47 democracy advocates begins

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(HONG KONG) — A landmark trial of 47 Hong Kong democracy advocates charged under a national security law began on Monday.

The case — at the core of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong — comes just as the city launches a massive campaign to lure tourists back after the pandemic.

The defendants include activist Joshua Wong, as well as former lawmaker Claudia Mo and legal scholar Benny Tai. They’re accused of “conspiracy to commit subversion” for holding unofficial pre-election primaries in July 2020, in which more than 600,000 people voted. At the time, authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong condemned the poll, arguing that they were trying to win enough seats in the city’s legislature to paralyse the government.

Sixteen of the 47 had earlier said they would contest the charges. Two others changed their plea to guilty on Monday morning. All will be sentenced after the trial — which could take 90 days.

Wong, Mo and Tai are among those who pleaded guilty, hoping for a more lenient sentence. But Tai, as one of the poll’s organizers, will likely face a higher sentence anyway.

The defendants are facing a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Many of them have already been held in pre-trial custody for nearly two years.

Inside the court on Monday, former lawmaker Leung “Long Hair” Kwok-hung said, “There’s no crime to answer. It is not a crime to act against a totalitarian regime.”

The judge replied by calling it a “solemn occasion” and asked for respect from the defendants.

In the times before the crackdown, it would be typical for crowds of protesters to gather outside of the courts during politically charged trials like this.

But demonstrations have all but disappeared in Hong Kong, since the national security law was introduced to stamp out dissent following the 2019 unrest.

Dozens of police were deployed to the court on Monday morning, as people queued overnight for a place in the court’s public gallery. Some of them told local reporters they didn’t even know what the trial was about.

Police pushed away members of the League of Social Democrats when they tried to arrive at court. They are one of Hong Kong’s last active pro-democracy groups.

Two people carried a banner reading “crackdown is shameless.”

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