At least 47 activists are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial primary poll in 2020 to select the strongest candidates for a legislative council election that authorities say was part of a plan to “overthrow” the government.
Protest chants rang out as about 1,000 people gathered outside a Hong Kong court during the hearing of 47 activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion as authorities intensify a crackdown on the opposition.
Security was tight, with more than 100 police officers deployed outside the West Kowloon court, in the largest rally this year despite social-distancing rules to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The activists are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial primary poll last July aimed at selecting the strongest candidates for a legislative council election that the government later postponed, citing the coronavirus.
Authorities said the informal poll was part of a plan to "overthrow" the government, further raising alarm that Hong Kong has taken a swift authoritarian turn since Beijing imposed a national security law on its freest city last June.
"This is the most ridiculous arrest in the history of Hong Kong," said Herbert Chow, 57, who was queuing outside the court and wearing a black face mask. "But I have confidence in our judicial system to restore justice. It’s the last line of defence."
Many were dressed in black, the colour associated with the 2019 anti-government protests, while some chanted: "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" and "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong," popular slogans during the unrest.
Others raised the three-finger salute that has become the symbol of protest against authoritarian rule in Myanmar.
The activists - 39 men and eight women, ages 23-64 - were charged on Sunday under the national security law, which punishes what China broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
The queue to enter the court stretched several hundred metres, nearly reaching around the entire block.
Some chanted slogans including "Release all political prisoners" and "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" the latter a slogan authorities say is now illegal under the new security law.
Others flashed the three-finger "Hunger Games" salute that has been embraced by fellow opposition campaigners in Thailand and Myanmar.
Pupils in a building overlooking the court shouting "Add Oil," a phrase of encouragement, to the crowds below.
Police earlier on Sunday had charged 47 leading dissidents with conspiracy to commit subversion in the largest use yet of the security legislation, as authorities seek to cripple the anti- Beijing movement once and for all.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken led international criticism of the latest charges, calling for the group's immediate release, as western powers accused Beijing of shredding the freedoms and autonomy it promised Hong Kong could maintain ahead of the territory's handover from the British.
We condemn the detention of and charges filed against pan-democratic candidates in Hong Kong's elections and call for their immediate release. Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes. The U.S. stands with the people of Hong Kong.— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) March 1, 2021
'Jailed, exiled and charged'
Local district councillor Kwan Chun-sang was one of dozens who camped overnight to bag a spot at the front of the queue for the court's public gallery.
"Soon after the charges were laid yesterday I decided to come and spend the night here," Kwan told AFP. "I would like to show my support for the opposition activists."
A small group of nationalist protesters also held banners welcoming the subversion charges.
"Punish the traitors severely, enact the national security law and throw them all behind bars," one sign read.
An hour after #HongKong authorities’ mass arrest of 47 pro-democracy activists, dozens of police officers pin a civilian to the ground during a booth held by students’ and medical workers’ unions.#SaveHongKong— Eileen Chang 😷⛑🥽🌂🧤🇭🇰 (@EileenEChang) February 28, 2021
Source: Guardians of Hong Kong pic.twitter.com/UqB7Yt0WIj
Those appearing in court represent a broad cross-section of Hong Kong's opposition, from veteran former opposition lawmakers to academics, lawyers, social workers and a host of youth activists.
They were arrested in a series of dawn raids in January and charged on Sunday with "conspiracy to commit subversion" one of the new broadly defined national security crimes. They face up to life in prison if convicted.
Anti- Beijing supporters described the move as a body blow and confirmation that opposition politics has been all but outlawed in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, human rights advocates are rendered criminals just because they sought to challenge Beijing’s overarching powers. The charges laid against them, which carry maximum penalty of life imprisonment, are a blatant assault to democracy and a gross miscarriage of justice. pic.twitter.com/3J2nzLybbt— Sophie Mak (@SophieMak1) March 1, 2021
"Every prominent voice of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong now is either jailed, in exile, or charged for subversion of state power," activist Sophie Mak tweeted.
The decision to charge 47 Hong Kong politicians & activists for subversion under the NSL is deeply disturbing. It shows in the starkest terms the NSL being used to eliminate political dissent rather than restore order - contrary to what the Chinese Government promised— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) February 28, 2021
The latest charges sparked a fresh round of international criticism of Beijing and the city's authorities.
Britain and the European Union said the charges showed the law was being used to target political dissent rather than what the west deems as actual threats to national security.