Asia

Security tight as crowds gather outside Hong Kong court for subversion

HONG KONG (REUTERS) – About 1,000 people gathered outside a Hong Kong court on Monday (March 1) ahead of the hearing of 47 democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, as authorities intensify a crackdown under the city’s national security law.

The activists are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial primary poll last July aimed at selecting the strongest candidates for a legislative council election that the government later postponed, citing the coronavirus.

Authorities said the informal poll was part of a plan to “overthrow” the government, further raising alarm that Hong Kong has taken a swift authoritarian turn.

“This is the most ridiculous arrest in the history of Hong Kong,” said Mr Herbert Chow, 57, who was queuing outside the court and wearing a black face mask. “But I have confidence in our judicial system to restore justice. It’s the last line of defence.”

Security was tight, with about 100 police officers deployed as supporters gathered outside the West Kowloon court in one of the largest rallies since the coronavirus outbreak. 

The queue to enter the court stretched for more several hundred metres, nearly reaching around the entire block. 

Some chanted: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” and “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” popular slogans during anti-government protests that roiled the city in 2019. 

Others raised the three-finger salute that has become the symbol of protest against authoritarian rule in Myanmar. 

Several foreign diplomats also queued.

Mr Jonathan Williams, a British diplomat at the UK consulate in the city, said: “It’s clear that the use of the national security law is going much broader than the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities promised.”

He added, however, that the UK government had “full faith in the independent judiciary,” to deal with the defendants fairly and impartially without political pressure.

As crowds swelled outside the court building, some supporters held up large yellow banners that said: “Release all political prisoners now.”

Authorities have said that campaigning to win a majority in Hong Kong’s 70-seat Legislative Council, with the purpose of blocking government proposals to ramp up pressure for democratic reforms, could be seen as subversive. 

Among those charged was the organiser of the primary election and former law professor Benny Tai as well as veteran activists Lester Shum, Joshua Wong and Owen Chow.

The charges are the latest blow to the city’s pro-democracy movement. Since the security legislation was imposed on the city last June, some elected legislators have been disqualified, scores of activists arrested and others have fled overseas.

The crackdown on dissent comes as Chinese officials prepare to unveil electoral reforms that will most likely further diminish the role and influence of opposition forces in public office.

As Beijing consolidates its hold over Hong Kong, concern is mounting in the West over freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to China in 1997 and which underpin its role as a global financial centre.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the 47 to be released immediately. 

“Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes,” Mr Blinken said on Twitter. “The US stands with the people of Hong Kong.”

On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the charges as “deeply disturbing.”

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