About 1,000 people gathered outside a Hong Kong court on Monday ahead of the trial of 47 democracy activists accused of conspiracy to commit subversion as authorities intensify vigorous action under the city’s national security law.
Activists are accused of organizing and participating in an unofficial primary vote in July with the aim of selecting the strongest candidates for an election to the Legislative Council, which the government later postponed with reference to coronavirus.
Authorities said the informal inquiry was part of a plan to “overthrow” the government, further worrying that Hong Kong has taken a quick authoritarian turn.
“This is the most ridiculous arrest in Hong Kong history,” said Herbert Chow, 57, who was standing in line outside the courthouse wearing a black face mask. “But I have confidence in our justice system to restore justice. That is the last line of defense.”
The activists – 39 men and eight women, aged 23-64 – were charged on Sunday under the National Security Act, which punishes what China generally defines as segregation, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Security was tight, with more than 100 police officers deployed as supporters gathered outside West Kowloon Court in one of the largest meetings since the coronavirus outbreak.
The queue to enter the track stretched for several hundred meters and stretched almost around the entire block.
Some shouted: “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our time” and “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”, popular slogans during anti-government protests that plagued the city in 2019.
Others raised the three-fingered greeting that has become a symbol of protest against authoritarian rule in Myanmar.
France 24’s Oliver Farry reports from Hong Kong
Several foreign diplomats also stood in line.
Jonathan Williams, a British diplomat at the British Consulate in the city, said: “It is clear that the use of national security law goes much wider than the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities promised.”
He added, however, that the British government had “full confidence in the independent judiciary” to deal with the defendants fairly and impartially without political pressure.
As the crowds swelled outside the courthouse, some held up large yellow banners saying, “Release all political prisoners now.”
Authorities have said the campaign to win a majority in Hong Kong’s 70-seat Legislative Council, aimed at blocking government proposals to increase pressure for democratic reforms, could be seen as subversive.
Among the accused were the organizer of the primary election and the former team professor Benny Tai, as well as the prominent activists Lester Shum, Joshua Wong and Owen Chow.
The accusations are the latest blow to the city’s pro-democracy movement. Since the introduction of security legislation in the city in June last year, some elected legislators have been disqualified, many activists have been arrested and others have fled abroad.
The measures taken against disagreement come as Chinese officials prepare to uncover electoral reforms that are likely to further reduce the opposition’s strengths and influence in public office.
As Beijing consolidates its grip on Hong Kong, worries in the West about freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 increase and support its role as a global financial center.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that the 47 be released immediately.
“Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes,” Blinken said on Twitter. “The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong.”
On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the allegations as “deeply disturbing.”