HONG KONG - Hong Kong's largest-ever national security trial began final arguments Wednesday, more than 1,000 days after authorities filed charges against 47 democracy activists under a law imposed by China to quell dissent.
The defendants represent a cross-section of Hong Kong's opposition -- from democratically elected lawmakers to unionists and academics -- which has been effectively squashed after China imposed a sweeping national security law on the city in 2020.
Critics say the law undermined civil liberties that were meant to be enshrined under a 1997 agreement to hand the former British colony back to China.
But the government said the law was needed to crack down on major crimes such as collusion and secession after Hong Kong saw massive -- and at times violent -- pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019.
The group of 47 were charged with "conspiracy to subvert state power" and face up to life in prison in a case widely considered a bellwether of Hong Kong's political environment.
The activists were accused of organising, joining and supporting an unofficial primary election in July 2020 to coordinate candidates for the city's legislature.
Protesting outside the court on Wednesday was Alexandra Wong, a well-known activist nicknamed "Grandma Wong", who waved the Union Jack and held a sign saying "Free 47, Free all".
"I hope they can be released immediately. The 47 only wanted to fight for genuine universal suffrage for us, (there were) no other motives, not to take the power," Wong told AFP.
Prosecutors said the defendants planned to seize a legislative majority to force Hong Kong authorities to meet the "five demands" raised by protesters in 2019.
The demands included launching an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality against protesters and gaining universal suffrage for both the city's leader and lawmakers.
Prosecutors also allege the defendants intended to veto the government's budgets with the intent of forcing the chief executive to step down.
Lead prosecutor Jonathan Man argued on Wednesday that the activists should be convicted even if no violence was involved, as it had become easier for people to manipulate public communication channels to subvert state power.
"We are talking about a conspiracy to have legislators vetoing the budget indiscriminately," Man said.
The national security law was "meant to be a strong law" and should not be narrowly interpreted, he added.
The defence earlier argued that the activists were only planning to exercise legislators' constitutional powers and did not believe they would break the law.
- 'Troubled' -
The group of 47 were first charged in March 2021. Most were denied bail and have since remained in jail.
Thirty-one defendants have pleaded guilty.
The trial has been conducted without a jury -- a major departure from the city's 178-year-old common law tradition -- as ordered by the secretary for justice to prevent risks including the "involvement of foreign elements".
The case is heard by three senior High Court judges, who are among a pool of jurists handpicked by Hong Kong's leader.
In October, a group of UN human rights experts expressed concerns about the trial.
"We are very troubled about the use of mass trials in NSL cases and how they may negatively affect safeguards that ensure due process and the right to fair trial," the experts said.
The last round of legal arguments -- also known as the closing submissions -- is expected to last 10 days before the court adjourns to consider the verdict.