Hong Kong court edges closer to sentencing democracy activists involved in unofficial primary

HONG KONG (AP) — A Hong Kong court on Tuesday began mitigation hearings for prominent pro-democracy activists who were convicted under a national security law and now face up to life in prison.

The activists were among 47 democracy advocates who were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion in 2021 for their involvement in an unofficial primary, in the biggest case brought under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

They were accused of attempting to paralyze Hong Kong’s government and topple the city’s leader by securing a legislative majority and using it to block city budgets.

Forty-five of the defendants either pled guilty or were convicted by a three-judge panel whose membership was approved by the government. The judges said their plans to effect change through the election would have undermined the government’s authority and created a constitutional crisis, in a verdict that critics said raised doubt about judicial independence.

The first batch of defendants to plead for lenient sentences contains legal scholar Benny Tai and activists Au Nok-hin, Andrew Chiu, Ben Chung and Gordon Ng. Prosecutors described the five as the organizers of the primary. The mitigation hearings are expected to continue until early August.

Barrister Stewart Wong, representing Tai, told the judges that his client should be jailed for two years. He agreed that Tai played a leading role before the security law went into effect, but said the court could only consider the diminished role he took on after the law was imposed.

But prosecutor Jonathan Man said that the primary’s organizers could not be let off lightly.

“It’s unacceptable that organizers of a crime are not principal offenders,” he said. “Any submission like that defies common sense."

Hours before the hearing began, dozens of people lined up outside the court building amid a heavy police presence. Some of them, including retiree William Wong, arrived at about 6 p.m. on Monday despite summer heat.

Wong said he voted in the primary and shared the defendants' hopes for democracy.

“It’s a normal election. Why do people have to be jailed for this? I can’t accept this,” he said.

Tai, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong, nodded and smiled at people sitting in the public gallery after he walked into the courtroom. Wearing a white T-shirt and a black blazer, he appeared to be relaxed during the hearing.

Tai is best known as a co-founder of the city’s 2014 Occupy Movement, during which demonstrators occupied streets for 79 days and brought traffic in some areas to a standstill, demanding direct elections for the city’s leader.

The judges wrote in their verdict last month that Tai had laid out plans to block city budgets by acquiring a legislative majority, calling it a “constitutional weapon of mass destruction." They said Tai’s aim was to use the plans to “undermine, destroy or overthrow the existing political system and structure” of Hong Kong.

Tai, Au, Chiu and Chung were among 31 activists who pled guilty. They have a better chance of receiving shorter prison terms.

The law authorizes a range of sentences depending on the seriousness of the offense and the defendant's role in it, going from under three years for the least serious to 10 years to life for people convicted of “grave” offenses.

The convictions have drawn concern from foreign governments. The United States has said it plans to impose new visa restrictions on both Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for implementing the security law.

A British judge also said the verdict “is symptomatic of a growing malaise in the Hong Kong judiciary,” days after resigning from a post on the city's top court.

But the Hong Kong government insisted the city’s courts are not under any political pressure from mainland or Hong Kong authorities.

Both governments also maintain that the security law introduced in 2020 restored stability following huge anti-government protests in 2019.