A Hong Kong court hears final arguments in the subversion trial of pro-democracy activists

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HONG KONG (AP) — A Hong Kong court started hearing the final arguments Wednesday of some of the city's best-known pro-democracy activists tried under a law imposed by China’s ruling Communist Party to crush dissent.

The activists' subversion trial is the biggest prosecution yet under the national security law. They may face up to life in prison if convicted.

The defendants were among 47 activists arrested in 2021 under the sweeping law imposed by Beijing following massive anti-government protests in 2019. They were charged in connection with an informal 2020 primary election to pick candidates who could win control of the territory’s Legislative Council.

Prosecutors accuse the activists of trying to paralyze Hong Kong’s government and topple the city’s leader by securing a majority to veto budgets.

One of the three judges, who were approved by the city's leader to oversee the case, estimated they would need another three to four months tentatively to deliver a verdict.

Prosecutor Jonathan Man argued that unlawful means to subvert state power didn't necessarily imply the use of force or physical violence.

“(In) the 21st century, social media, communications to the public is much easier and convenient,” he said, adding that it was easy to "manipulate" those channels for some “to endanger national security.”

The subversion trial involves many of the city’s most prominent activists, including legal scholar Benny Tai, former student leader Joshua Wong and former opposition party leaders Wu Chi-wai and Alvin Yeung.

Most of the 47 activists have been detained without bail for more than two years. Others were granted bail based on strict conditions. Thirty-one, including Tai, Wong, Wu and Yeung, entered guilty pleas in court, while 16 others pleaded not guilty in February.

One of the defense lawyers, Randy Shek, representing activists Gordon Ng and Winnie Yu, insisted in Wednesday's hearing that his clients were simply seeking to hold those in power to account, saying “that could not be subversion." They did not try to topple any government institution but were only seeking to push for democratic elections for residents to pick the city's leader and lawmakers, he said.

Outside the court, pro-democracy activist Alexandra Wong, popularly known as “Grandma Wong," held a placard that read “Free 47, Free All" and waved a British flag to show her support to those who went on trial.

The trial is widely considered as part of Beijing’s crackdown on the city’s once-vibrant pro-democracy movement. After the introduction of the law — which critics say is eroding the autonomy promised when Hong Kong returned from Britain to China in 1997 — many pro-democracy politicians and activists were jailed, went into self-exile, or disappeared from the city’s political scene.

A large number of young professionals and middle-class families emigrated due to the erosion of Western-style civil liberties and the Chinese government’s crackdown.

The national security law criminalizes secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city’s affairs as well as terrorism. Apart from the activists, pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai is also facing collusion charges under the law.