Hong Kong police have accused dozens of pro-democracy activists of “subversion,” as part of the larger crackdown on the opposition under a Chinese-imposed national security law.
Last month, 55 of the city’s best-known Democratic activists were arrested in a series of dawn raids.
Police confirmed on Sunday that 47 of them had each been charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” – one of the new crimes against national security – and would appear in court Monday morning.
The security law, imposed on the city last June, criminalizes acts qualified as subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Those charged are usually denied bail until trial and face life imprisonment if found guilty.
Sam Cheung, a young activist and contestant in an unofficial primary election last summer, has been charged after showing up at a local police station, wearing a black mask and accompanied by his wife.
“Hong Kong people are going through a really tough time these days,” he told reporters before entering the station.
“I hope not everyone will give up on Hong Kong… (and) continue to fight.”
Cheung was arrested in a dawn raid with more than 50 other Democrats on January 6 as part of the biggest national security operation since the law was passed in June.
They have been accused of organizing and participating in an unofficial “primary election” last July aimed at selecting the strongest candidates for a legislative council election.
Beijing is fighting to stamp out dissent in semi-autonomous Hong Kong after swathes of the population took to the streets in 2019 in huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests.
The indicted activists are a broad cross section of Hong Kong’s opposition, from veteran former pro-democracy lawmakers such as James To and Claudia Mo to academics, lawyers, social workers and a host of young activists.
Some took a cautiously provocative tone as they prepared to report to police on Sunday to hear the charges.
“Democracy is never a gift from heaven. It has to be won by many with strong will, ”Jimmy Sham, a key organizer of the 2019 huge protests, told reporters outside a police station.
“We can tell the whole world, under the most painful system, that the Hong Kong people are the light of the city. We will stay strong and fight for what we want, ”he added.
Gwyneth Ho, a young journalist turned activist, posted on her Facebook page before being charged: “I hope everyone can find their way to peace of mind and then move forward with indomitable will.”
The alleged offense of those arrested for subversion was to hold an unofficial primary last summer to choose candidates for the city’s partially elected legislature, in the hope that the pro-democracy bloc could take a majority for the first times.
Many of these candidates were ultimately disqualified and authorities called off the election due to the coronavirus.
But Chinese and Hong Kong officials described the primary as an attempt to “topple” and “cripple” the city government and therefore a threat to national security.
Hong Kong reporter Adrian Brown of Al Jazeera said the decision to indict the activists suggested that the Chinese authorities’ crackdown on dissent had shifted from leaders to “foot soldiers” of the pro-democracy movement.
“In Hong Kong today, strategizing on how to win an election is now a violation of national security law,” he said.
Western nations have accused Beijing of using its crackdown to destroy freedoms that had been promised under the “one country, two systems” configuration when the former British colony was returned to China.
After arrests last month, the UN rights watchdog said the sweep confirmed fears that the security law “is being used to detain people for exercising legitimate rights to participate in life. political and public ”.
Beijing said the security law would target only an “extreme minority” and was necessary to restore stability.
Brown said the choice many pro-democracy activists faced was actually to remain silent or leave Hong Kong.
“And more and more people are applying to go, especially to Britain which has offered very generous residency conditions,” he said. “And I think once COVID-19 is removed, you’ll see a steady exodus out of Hong Kong.”