Hong Kong's landmark national security trial involving 47 pro-democracy politicians and activists began Monday — almost two years after their arrests.
All of them have been charged with subversion for participating in an unofficial primary held in 2020, as they tried to win a majority in the city's Legislative Council at the time.
Prosecutors accused them of attempting to paralyze the government and overthrow Hong Kong's chief executive through a "massive and well-organized" plan that involved blocking legislation and vetoing government budgets.
Among the accused are veteran pro-democracy politician Claudia Mo, legal scholar Benny Tai, former journalist Gwyneth Ho and prominent activist Joshua Wong.
'Patriots rule Hong Kong'
Dennis Kwok, a former opposition legislator in Hong Kong who is now a senior fellow at Harvard University, said his former colleagues are being charged for allegedly having promised to "use their power as legislators if elected, to force the Hong Kong government to answer to the demands of the people, and otherwise, they would veto important government budget or bills."
Kwok told DW they are "being penalized as members of the opposition for criticizing the government."
Sunny Cheung, an exiled Hong Kong activist who was among those who participated in the unofficial primary in 2020, told DW that the international community "should observe how the Hong Kong regime tries to frame all the defendants who joined the primary."
Since the imposition of the National Security Law (NSL) in the summer of 2020, after months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous city has undergone dramatic changes. Hundreds of pro-democracy politicians, activists and Hong Kong citizens have been arrested.
Local authorities have also launched an overhaul of the electoral system by implementing vetting mechanisms that emphasize the principle of "patriots rule Hong Kong."
Pre-trial detention becomes the new normal
Chung Ching Kwong, the Hong Kong Campaigns coordinator for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), told DW that the prosecutors "are not providing any concrete proof that they (the defendants) were really trying to subvert the state."
Most of the defendants have been detained for over two years — a significant indicator that authorities are trying to keep them "out of the public's eyes," Kwong said.
"By putting these defendants behind bars for years, they can't effectively communicate with the public or they have limited access to information or the public has limited access to them," she said, adding that some defendants who had originally been granted bail were later put back behind bars.
According to exiled activist Sunny Cheung, the defendants "still try to write some public letters through social media, and encourage the Hong Kong public to be resilient."
So far, 31 of the 47 defendants have already pleaded guilty while 16 others plan not to plead guilty, a position that could lead to longer prison sentences. Four defendants, who are accused as "principal offenders," could face life imprisonment.
"I think it's very likely that the defendants, in this case, will receive very harsh and long sentences, as we can see in Jimmy Lai's fraud case in which he was sentenced to more than five years in jail," Kwong told DW.
Jurors removed from case
Authorities have also removed jurors from the case, citing safety concerns for them and their family members.
Eric Lai, a visiting researcher at King's College London, said the decision raises concerns over the fairness of the trial.
"The move of not designating juries to these cases reflects the government's deep concern about the outcome of the trial," Lai told DW.
"This implies that the judicial system in Hong Kong has become more like a tool for the government to achieve their political aim."
Kwong from IPAC remains hopeful. She said she expects the defendants "will have very powerful messages telling Hong Kongers and the world that this is happening in Hong Kong, and these people are not going to kowtow to the government."
"I hope foreign governments will send representatives to the court to put some pressure on the Hong Kong government, letting them know that the world is still monitoring the situation in Hong Kong," she said.
Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum