Dozens of Hong Kong dissidents charged with security crime

Dozens of Hong Kong dissidents charged with security crime

Pro-democracy activist Benny Tai arrives at a police station in Hong Kong to face a subversion charge.
Pro-democracy activist Benny Tai arrives at a police station in Hong Kong to face a subversion charge.

HONG KONG: Dozens of Hong Kong dissidents were charged with subversion on Sunday in the largest use yet by police of Beijing's sweeping new national security law, as authorities seek to cripple the finance hub's democracy movement.

Last month 55 of the city's best-known democracy campaigners were arrested in a series of dawn raids.

On Sunday, police confirmed 47 of them had now been charged with one count each of "conspiracy to commit subversion" -- one of the new national security crimes -- and would appear in court on Monday morning.

Beijing is battling to stamp out dissent in semi-autonomous Hong Kong after swathes of the population hit the streets in 2019 in huge and sometimes violent democracy protests.

The broadly worded security law, imposed on the city last June, criminalises any act deemed to be subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

Those charged are routinely denied bail until trial and face up to life in prison if convicted.

The activists charged on Sunday are a broad cross-section of Hong Kong's opposition, from veteran former pro-democracy lawmakers to academics, lawyers, social workers and a host of youth activists.

Police said the defendants include 39 men and eight women aged between 23 and 64.

Joshua Wong, one of the city's most recognisable democracy figures, was also charged, visited by police inside prison where he is currently serving a sentence for organising protests in 2019.

John Clancey, an American lawyer and long time Hong Kong resident who was among the initial group arrested, was one of the few not charged on Sunday.

- 'Remain strong' -

Many struck a cautiously defiant tone as they prepared to report to police on Sunday to hear the charges.

"Democracy is never a gift from heaven. It must be earned by many with strong will," Jimmy Sham, a key organiser of 2019's huge protests, told reporters outside a police station.

"We can tell the whole world, under the most painful system, Hong Kongers are the light of the city. We will remain strong and fight for what we want," he added.

"We have long decided not to bow our heads to totalitarian rule," said Lester Shum. "I hope Hong Kong people can carry on with this decision."

Gwyneth Ho, a young journalist turned activist, posted on her Facebook page before being charged: "I hope everyone can find their road to peace of mind and then press forward with indomitable will."

The alleged offence of those arrested for subversion was to organise an unofficial primary last summer to choose candidates for the city's partially elected legislature, in hopes that the pro-democracy bloc might take a majority for the first time.

Many of those candidates were ultimately disqualified from standing, and authorities scrapped the election because of the coronavirus.

But Chinese and Hong Kong officials viewed the primary as an attempt to "overthrow" and "paralyse" the city's government and therefore a threat to national security.

- Only 'patriots' allowed -

Critics say that declaration has effectively made opposition politics in Hong Kong all but illegal.

Clifford Stott, a British academic who was hired by Hong Kong's government to sit on a short-lived advisory panel to the city's police watchdog after the democracy protests, gave a stark assessment of Sunday's charges.

"The day participation in the democratic process became a crime," he wrote on Twitter.

Hong Kong has never been a democracy -- something that has fuelled protests and resentment towards Beijing.

But until recently, the city had a veneer of choice that allowed a small and vocal opposition to flourish at certain local elections.

After 2019's protests, China has sought to purge that opposition and ensure only "staunch patriots" be allowed to run Hong Kong.

Lawmakers and candidates have been increasingly disqualified for their views.

On Tuesday authorities also unveiled a new law that will vet the political views of all public office holders.

Western nations have accused Beijing of using its crackdown to shred the freedoms that were promised under the "One Country, Two Systems" setup when the former British colony was returned to China.

After last month's arrests the UN's rights watchdog said the sweep confirmed fears the security law was "being used to detain individuals for exercising legitimate rights to participate in political and public life".

Beijing, which promised the security law would target only an "extreme minority", said the legislation was needed to restore stability.

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