Updated May 30, 2024 - World

Hong Kong democracy activists found guilty in largest national security case

Pro-democracy activists Leung Kwok-hung (center left) beside a prison van in Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy activists Leung Kwok-hung (center left), also known as "Long Hair," and Lee Cheuk-yan (center right), who was not sentenced on Thursday, beside a correctional services van in Hong Kong in 2021. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

A Hong Kong court found 14 of 16 prominent pro-democracy activists guilty of subversion charges on Thursday in a case that was condemned by rights groups.

Why it matters: The activists were among 47 charged in the largest trial concerning China's sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing in the global financial hub four years ago.

Hong Kong activist Lawrence Lau (C) talks to the media after being found not guilty
Former district councillor Lawrence Lau talks to reporters after being found not guilty at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts in Hong Kong on Thursday. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images
  • They were the only ones to plead not guilty to "conspiracy to commit subversion" charges over allegations they organized an unofficial primary to nominate opposition candidates for a legislative election in 2020.

The big picture: Lawyer Lawrence Lau and fellow former district councillor Shun Lee on Thursday became the first-ever defendants to be found not guilty of the security law charges.

  • Among those found guilty were former city lawmakers Helena Wong, Raymond Chan, Lam Cheuk-ting and Leung "Long Hair" Kwok-hung, a 68-year-old left-wing former lawmaker whose activism began when Hong Kong was a British colony.
  • Lau told reporters outside court that the other defendants in the case warranted "our concern and even love."
  • If there's "any star in this case, this judgement should be the star," added Lau, who represented himself, holding up the paper. "It stands for jurisprudence, reasoning, logic, perspectives of our judges. ... It is more important than any single individual of this case. It is part of our rule of law."

What they're saying: "Democracy is not a crime, regardless of what the Chinese government and its handpicked Hong Kong court may say," said Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch's acting China director, in a statement, per the BBC.

  • "Beijing promised Hong Kong people universal suffrage. It is Beijing that needs to be held accountable for repeatedly reneging on these promises, and for blatantly erasing the basic human rights guaranteed in Hong Kong laws and functional constitution."

Zoom out: Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 but retained a high degree of autonomy — including the freedom to protest and an independent judiciary, but the ruling Chinese Communist Party has in recent years moved to change this.

Go deeper: Beijing's national security law takes a toll in Hong Kong

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

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