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Helicopters displaying the Chinese national flag and the Hong Kong regional flag fly over Victoria Harbour during celebrations of the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland on July 1, 2022. Photo: cnsphoto
HK High Court File Photo: VCG
Dozens of former local politicians and extreme separatist activists in other sectors involved in the infamous "35-plus" political strategy in 2020, including former legal professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting and secessionist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, pleaded guilty of "conspiring to subvert state power" on Thursday. The case will be handed over to the Hong Kong High Court for sentencing in September and November respectively.
The case - the largest since the National Security Law (NSL) for Hong Kong took effect - has great symbolic significance, as over half of the defendants pleading guilty showed that the prosecution can present strong evidence and the defendants would be at a disadvantage if they continue to put on a defense, some legal experts said. More importantly, the upcoming sentencing on such a major NSL case in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) will deliver a strong message of deterrence to those who intend to endanger national security, and the ending of the anti-China rioters and secessionists in Hong Kong today could be the Taiwan separatists' tomorrow, some experts said.
The case concerning 47 anti-government figures in Hong Kong, who were charged with conspiring to subvert state power in February 2021, was heard at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts on Thursday morning. Among them, 29 defendants, anti-government figures such as Tai, Wong, and former lawmaker Wu Chi-wai pleaded guilty, and they will be handed over to the High Court for sentencing.
In addition to Tai and Wong, other defendants who pleaded guilty included former lawmaker Claudia Mo, who was seen at the scene when black-clad rioters vandalized the Legislative Council (LegCo) building on July 1, 2019. Former lawmakers Eddie Chu and Alvin Yeung were also among the list of those who pleaded guilty.
The 29 figures who pleaded guilty included a former university professor, LegCo members and district councilors, political figures and business representatives. About 150 pages of details listed the public claims and actions of those defendants. For example, Tai, along with former lawmaker Au Nok-hin, published a number of articles in local newspapers and social media outlets advocating the anti-government "primaries" in December 2019. Tai also came up with the "ten steps" for "lam chau," which roughly translates as "mutual destruction with the government," lobbying Western countries to sanction the HKSAR and the Chinese mainland and using filibuster tactics to paralyze LegCo operations in order to subvert state power.
The so-called 35-plus strategy for illegal primaries was suspected of violating two types of laws － Hong Kong's local electoral laws, as there is no such primary election in Hong Kong, and the NSL for Hong Kong, as the illegal primaries had aimed to paralyze the HKSAR government, cause a constitutional crisis and call for foreign sanctions, which all fall into the category of violating the NSL for Hong Kong, officials and experts said.
Tai, sacked by the University of Hong Kong in 2020, was also one of the three leaders of the illegal "Occupy Central" movement in 2014.
Significance of largest NSL case
The suspects' guilty pleas show that the prosecution can present strong and conclusive evidence, making the defendants believe that there is no chance of winning, so they chose to plead guilty in order to reduce their losses, Lau Siu-kai, deputy head of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, told the Global Times on Thursday.
"The prosecution's victory in this case is beneficial to establishing the prestige of the relevant laws, deter the anti-China rioters who deliberately endanger national security, and also promote national security education in Hong Kong society and maintain national security and Hong Kong's stability and prosperity," Lau said.
Along with the other defendants, Tai was in charge of allocating financial and logistical support for the illegal primaries. Even after the NSL for Hong Kong took effect, many defendants continued engaging in such illegal acts until they were all arrested in January 2021, according to the details of the case.
Wong, an infamous secessionist who used to frequently visit other countries and regions to push for the passage of some Hong Kong-related bills and lobby for American sanctions against China, had already been sentenced in December 2020 on two charges related to the siege of the Hong Kong police headquarters in June 2019. He was widely considered a major disruptor of the political system before the NSL for Hong Kong and the electoral reform took effect.
The evidence can tell us that those political figures who claimed that they pursued so-called democracy or human rights had actually violated the law with their ill-intentioned attempts to subvert state power, Tian Feilong, a legal expert at Beihang University in Beijing, told the Global Times on Thursday.
"Today's ending of separatists in Hong Kong indicates the tomorrow for the Taiwan secessionists," Tian said. He noted that as the mainland has accelerated using the rule of law to crack down on separatists in Hong Kong, those measures will also be applied to the separatists in Taiwan.
In particular, some separatists in Hong Kong colluded with secessionists in Taiwan to endanger national security, and the law enforcement authorities will continue investigating and following up on the case. With the legal network being established and fully applied, those forces will see their existing room become much smaller, Tian said.
Recently, a spokesperson of the Taiwan Work Office of the CPC Central Committee remarked that anyone who breaks the law will be brought to book. The country will take criminal punishment measures against those diehard "Taiwan independence" elements who deliberately challenge the law, punish them strictly in accordance with the law, and hold them accountable throughout their lives.
"Following [US house speaker Nancy] Pelosi's provocative visit [to Taiwan] and the release of the latest white paper on the Taiwan question, I believe the crackdown on the separatists will be a continuous process," Tian said.
The Hong Kong Department of Justice has reportedly ordered a non-jury trial for dozens of suspects who have been charged with conspiring to subvert state power, and the authority said on Wednesday that the arrangement does not undermine any of the defendants' legitimate rights and interests.
Local newspaper Ming Pao reported on Wednesday that the case of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, an infamous separatist that hyped riots with collusion with external forces, will also be tried without a jury.
Under the common law, in general criminal cases, defendants are encouraged to plead guilty as early as possible to reduce the harm to the victim and reduce court time, but the NSL for Hong Kong is a national law, and national security-related crimes are handled with severe punishment around the world, Louis Chen, member of the Election Committee and general secretary of the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, told the Global Times on Thursday.
"The binding force of the NSL for Hong Kong is higher than local laws in Hong Kong, so the practice of plea bargaining does not apply entirely to the defendants under the NSL unless it's related to the situation stipulated in Article 33 of the NSL," he said.
A lighter penalty may be imposed, or the penalty may be reduced or, in the case of a minor offence, exempted, if an offender, criminal suspect, or defendant, in the process of committing an offence, voluntarily discontinues the commission of the offence or voluntarily and effectively forestalls its consequences, according to Article 33, or the offender voluntarily surrenders himself or herself and gives a truthful account of the offence or reports on the offence committed by other person, which is verified to be true, or provides material information which assists in solving other criminal case.
A person who is a principal offender or a person who commits an offence of a grave nature will be sentenced to life imprisonment or fixed-term imprisonment of not less than 10 years, according to the NSL, and a person who actively participates in the offence shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than ten years. Other participants will be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years, short-term detention or restriction.
"It's believed that defendants like Tai and Wong, as major figures in the conspiracy to subvert state power, will face very long prison sentences, and the sentencing will also take into account the long-term harm they had done to the city's constitutional order and national security interests," Chen said.