If found guilty of “conspiracy to commit subversion,” they could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The defendants were among 53 people, many former lawmakers, activists and prominent district councilors, who were arrested last month for organizing, planning and participating in a primary election for the city’s democratic opposition last July.
That event was designed to identify the strongest pro-democracy candidates to participate in the legislative council elections planned for last September, when the opposition camp hoped to win a historic majority.
However, those elections were eventually postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but not before several candidates for democracy were disqualified, and it was warned that those who participated in the primaries could violate the then security law for weeks.
The 39 men and eight women charged Sunday, aged 23 to 64, are in custody and will appear in West Kowloon magistrates’ courts on Monday. Under their original bail agreements, they were not required to register with the police until early April. But earlier this week, the group was asked to report to police on Sunday.
Sunday’s charges mark a radical escalation in national security law enforcement, whereby only a handful of people had previously been charged and brought to court.
The law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers, and cases under the law can be handled by a dedicated branch of the Hong Kong police and national security courts.
Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam and others had previously promised that the law would have limited effect and would only target a small number of fringe activists.
Anyone who does not take the oath, or is deemed to have done so insincerely, will be immediately disqualified from office and barred from running in elections for the next five years, said Secretary for Constitutional and Continental Affairs Erick Tsang.
It came after Hong Kong’s sole delegate to China’s top legislature said only “staunch patriots” should be allowed to occupy positions of authority in Hong Kong.
Why punish a primary election?
Primary elections are a normal function in democracies around the world. At the time of the Hong Kong vote, the US Democratic primary, which Biden won, was still ongoing. Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have held such votes in the past, in an attempt to match the organization and discipline of the rival pro-Beijing camp and avoid fragmented support.
However, Hong Kong’s Security Secretary has accused those who organized the July primaries of seeking to “paralyze the Hong Kong government” by winning a majority in the legislature to veto government bills.
Voting against the budget and forcing the CEO to resign would have been legal before the national security law, similar to a “vote of no confidence” that causes a general election in many democracies. The city constitution also contains provisions to deal with such an event, allowing the executive director to call new legislative elections and pass a preliminary budget to allow the government to continue to function.
When dozens of former lawmakers and opposition activists were arrested in January, Anthony Blinken, now US Secretary of State, said that “the widespread arrests of pro-democracy protesters are an assault on those who courageously defend universal rights.” .
“The Biden-Harris administration will support the people of Hong Kong and oppose Beijing’s crackdown on democracy,” Blinken added.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned in January that the British government “will not look the other way when the rights and autonomy of the Hong Kong people are destroyed.”
“When China first imposed national security legislation, they said it was to bring some stability to Hong Kong. What is clear from these actions is that they are actually designed to crush political dissent,” Raab told CNN during an interview in London.