No Room For Silence in Hong Kong’s Mass Trial
By Brian Dooley
Hundreds of people queued up this morning for 39 public seats available at the opening day of Hong Kong’s mass trial of 47 pro-democracy activists.
Local reports say another 367 people are allowed to watch a live broadcast of the proceedings in other rooms in the courthouse.
The 47 are on trial for “taking part in a conspiracy to commit subversion,” and are all likely to be sentenced to prison, for terms between three years and life. Most have already pleaded guilty, with 16 pleading non-guilty.
The alleged crime centers on unofficial primary polls held in July 2020, designed to help the pro-democracy movement choose candidates for an upcoming council election. More than 600,000 people took part in the polls.
Basically, the defendants are on trial for trying to keep democracy alive after the severe crackdown on Hong Kong following years of protests against Beijing’s interference in the city’s life.
We covered the protests extensively from Hong Kong, and in June 2020 produced a report with local activists warning of the dangers of the new national security law under which the defendants are being prosecuted.
“The new national security law is likely to ban a range of ill-defined acts including treason, secession, sedition, and subversion, and will authorize China’s security services to operate openly within Hong Kong,” we predicted, and today’s trial sadly proves our point. It’s not very satisfying to be so horribly right about this draconian new law.
The trial opening today is the largest national security case to date, and most of those charged have already spent two years in jail. Another trial of activists under the same notorious law is expected later this year.
In December 2022, Chinese authorities gave Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee the power to bar foreign lawyers from national security cases. Traditionally, foreign lawyers have been used by both prosecutors and defendants in Hong Kong courts, and the move is another blow to the already-weakened independence of the city’s judiciary.
The non-jury trial that opened today is expected to last for months. It will be closely watched by locals looking for clues as to where the authorities now draw the red line beyond which criticizing the government is forbidden.
Also watching will be other governments. The United States was one of a dozen governments that sent official observers to monitor today’s trial. The signal these governments hope to send when sending these trial observers is generally one of implied unease.
The logic is that their silent presence somehow acts as a deterrent to the court violating the defendants’ rights. It doesn’t work.
As Human Rights First has been saying for years, simply observing a trial without publicly criticizing where it falls short of international standards isn’t much help.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor agrees. In a 2021 report she recommended that Governments should “State publicly if a trial of a human rights defender their representative has observed met international legal standards.”
The U.S. and other government observers should immediately and publicly say if something they see in the court doesn’t meet international legal standards. Openly criticizing proceedings might not make things any better for the defendants but staying silent certainly won’t, either.