Hong Kong pro-democracy activists behind bars
Christians are among those facing foreign collusion and subversion charges
Jimmy Lai, a 75-year-old pro-democracy media tycoon, spends about 23 hours a day in solitary confinement at the maximum-security Stanley Prison in Hong Kong. During the 50 minutes he gets for daily exercise outdoors, he walks alone in an approximately 16-by-30-foot area enclosed by barbed wire.
As Lai, a vocal critic of Beijing, marked his 1,000th day behind bars on Sept. 26, nearly 70 human rights organizations jointly signed an open letter to President Joe Biden. They urged him to call for the immediate release of Lai and other political prisoners in Hong Kong.
Lai is serving a nearly six-year sentence for fraud. Last December, a judge convicted him of violating the lease agreement of the headquarters of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper by concealing the operations of a consultancy firm there. But Lai, a Roman Catholic, is also facing far more serious charges of foreign collusion.
Under a Beijing-imposed national security law—which criminalizes secession, subversion, foreign collusion, and terrorism—political dissidents in Hong Kong could face up to life imprisonment. Authorities have quashed pro-democratic activism, using the law to arrest more than 270 people, intimidate leaders of civil society groups (leading to the closure of many), pull books from libraries, and ban movies.
Lai’s high-profile national security trial is set to begin on Dec. 18. It will come three years after authorities charged him with foreign collusion for calling on overseas governments to sanction Hong Kong and China in response to government officials’ forceful crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy movement.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s biggest national security trial continues, involving 47 pro-democracy politicians and activists who face charges of subversion. Among the defendants—known as the Hong Kong 47—are the region’s most prominent protest leaders. That includes former law professor Benny Tai, 59, and activist Joshua Wong, 27, both Christians. Police detained most of the defendants for nearly two years before the trial began in February.
A group of United Nations human rights experts issued a statement on Oct. 9 expressing “serious concern” about the mass trial. The use of such proceedings in national security law cases, they said, “may negatively affect safeguards that ensure due process and the right to fair trial.”
National security trials depart from typical practice under Hong Kong’s common law legal system. The judges are appointed by Hong Kong’s chief executive, the city’s top leader. The trials can also proceed without a jury, as is the case for Lai and the Hong Kong 47.
The 47 defendants had organized or participated in the pro-democracy camp’s unofficial election primaries in July 2020 ahead of a legislative election. Pro-democracy candidates ran with the aim of winning a majority in Hong Kong’s legislature, which has been dominated by Beijing loyalists. Some promised that if elected, they would veto the government’s annual budget and force the chief executive to resign. Authorities claim such actions amount to subversion.
Thirty-one of the defendants, including Tai and Wong, have pleaded guilty, while 16 have pleaded not guilty. In August the trial was adjourned to Nov. 27 to allow prosecutors and defense lawyers time to prepare closing arguments.
Benedict Rogers, CEO of the U.K.-based rights group Hong Kong Watch, believes those who pleaded guilty were persuaded by the authorities to do so with the hope of a more lenient sentence. “But with the regime in Hong Kong now,” he notes, “nothing is guaranteed.” He also thinks authorities would want to keep Tai and Wong “behind bars for as long as possible because they’re two of the most prominent leaders of [Hong Kong’s pro-democracy] movement.”
Former Hong Kong legislator Shiu Ka-chun visited Tai twice at Stanley Prison in July and August. According to Shiu’s Facebook updates on the two visits, Tai reads the Bible and The New York Times every day. He also expressed appreciation for Psalm 56, in which David wrote about his capture by the Philistines, and Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
Rogers said it’s important that the international community doesn’t forget about imprisoned democracy supporters, particularly Tai, Lai, and Wong, and that democratic nations keep up the pressure on Hong Kong and China about their cases. “These are political prisoners who are totally unjustly jailed for their peaceful campaigning for democracy, freedom and human rights,” he said.
—with additional reporting from Elizabeth Russell
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