The defendants themselves were arrested during early morning raids in January of 2021, and then subsequently charged in March of 2021 with the crime of organizing an unofficial primary to select opposition candidates. So why is this case so important? Depending on the perspective taken, it will either demonstrate Hong Kong’s judicial independence despite the new national security law imposed by Beijing, or that it will drive home how far Hong Kong has fallen to be far closer to the system of the more authoritarian mainland. Indeed, Eric Lai, a fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law in Washington D.C., stated how the trial is not just against the 47 opposition leaders but also against the population as a whole, who have been supporting democracy efforts in Hong Kong for decades now. Indeed, support for the statement by Lai is how, in a break with tradition, the defendants will not be granted a jury trial but instead will have their case heard by three High Court judges designated by the Chinese national security law. This is the same law that has been criticized as vaguely defining acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces that carries a punishment of life in prison.
Essentially authorities have presented an accusation that the move was to gain control of the city’s partly elected legislature in order to act on the demands of demonstrators and, potentially, compel the Beijing-backed leader John Lee Ka-chiu to quit. Unfortunately for the pro-democracy activists, Beijing has since cracked down even harder on cementing their political control over the former British colony.
The trial itself will focus on the 16 individuals who have pleaded not guilty to the charges levied against them, while the remaining 31 who have already pleaded guilty will be sentenced after the conclusion of the trial itself. Though it is expected the trial itself will run for some weeks, many are already saying that is but another sign that Hong Kong is rapidly losing its political freedoms and autonomy. Indeed, according to John Burns, an emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong, the trail is a test of Beijing’s capacity to completely wipe out any organized opposition in Hong Kong as a whole. Time will tell how the trial unfolds, but given what has been occuring to this point in Hong Kong, it is likely the outcome will demonstrate how Beijing is continuing to tighten its grip over the former colony, and its people, as a whole.
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