If found guilty of “conspiring to commit sabotage” they could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The defendants were among 53 people – several prominent former lawmakers, activists, and members of local councils – who were arrested last month for organizing, planning and participating in primary elections for the democratic opposition in the city last July.
The aim of this event was to identify the strongest pro-democracy candidates to participate in the Legislative Council elections scheduled to take place last September, when the opposition camp was hoping to win a historic majority.
However, these elections were eventually postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but not before many Democratic candidates were excluded – and warnings that primary election participants may be in breach of the security law that was in effect at the time.
39 men and eight women, between the ages of 23 and 64, were arrested on Sunday, and will appear before the West Col District Courts on Monday. Under their original bail agreements, they were not required to check with the police until early April. But earlier this week, the group was asked to report to the police on Sunday.
The charges issued on Sunday represent a sweeping escalation in the application of the National Security Act, under which charges are brought against only a small number of people and brought to court.
The law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers, and cases can be handled under the legislation by a specialized branch of the Hong Kong Police and National Security Courts.
Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam and others previously promised that the law would in fact be limited, targeting only a small number of marginalized activists.
Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Minister Eric Tsang has said that anyone who fails to take an oath – or is believed to have done so in a dishonest manner – will be immediately removed from office and banned from contesting the elections for the next five years.
This came after Hong Kong’s only delegate to the highest legislature in China said that only “loyal patriots” should be allowed to occupy positions of power in Hong Kong.
Why punish primaries?
Primary elections are a normal function in democracies around the world. At the time of the vote in Hong Kong, the US Democratic primary, which Biden won, was still going on. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists have made such voices in the past, trying to emulate the organization and discipline of the rival pro-Beijing camp and avoid splitting support.
But Hong Kong’s security minister accused those who organized the primaries in July of seeking to “paralyze the Hong Kong government” by winning a majority in the Legislative Council to veto government bills.
Voting against the budget and forcing the CEO to resign was legal before the National Security Act, similar to the “vote of no confidence” that led to general elections in many democracies. The city constitution also contains provisions to deal with such an event, enabling the CEO to call new legislative elections, and passing an initial budget to enable the government to continue operating.
When dozens of former lawmakers and opposition activists were arrested in January, Anthony Blinken, the current US Secretary of State, said, “The mass arrests of pro-democracy protesters are an assault on those who bravely defend universal rights.”
“The Biden Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy,” Blinken added.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned in January that the British government “will not turn a blind eye when the rights and independence of the people of Hong Kong are destroyed.”
“When China first imposed national security legislation, they said they aimed to bring about some stability in Hong Kong. What is clear from these measures is that they are in fact designed to crush political opposition,” Raab told CNN in an interview in London.