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The city of Hong Kong is facing a wave of sentencing for some of its most prominent democracy activists and leaders as a court issued a verdict in the city’s largest national security trial. Accused of holding a primary election to improve their chances in citywide polls, 47 pro-democracy figures, including Benny Tai and Joshua Wong, were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion. The convictions, handed down by judges picked by Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, are seen as an effort to use the national security law imposed by Beijing to suppress political dissent in the territory. This harsh punishment is expected to turn the once-vibrant political scene into a generation of political prisoners.

The accused activists include former lawmakers, activists, and legislators who have advocated self-determination for Hong Kong with more confrontational tactics. Most of them have spent at least the last three years in detention ahead of and during the 118-day trial. The authorities are sending a clear message that any opposition activism, even the more moderate kind, will no longer be tolerated in Hong Kong. Public alarm over shrinking freedoms in the city led to massive protests in 2019 and early 2020, challenging Chinese authority in a way not seen since 1989. In response, China imposed a national security law in 2020, giving the authorities a powerful tool to crackdown on dissenters.

The case against the activists is based on a scenario that never actually occurred, with prosecutors claiming that the unofficial primary election was part of a plan to win a majority in the legislature and force the city’s leader to resign. While the election never took place, the authorities arrested the activists in 2021, leading to a lengthy trial that finally concluded with convictions for 14 of the defendants. This crackdown has effectively silenced opposition voices in Hong Kong’s political institutions, as only approved “patriots” were allowed to stand for election to the city’s legislature in 2021.

The legal process and lengthy detention of the defendants have taken a heavy toll on their personal lives, with many of them being separated from their families, including some who have lost loved ones while behind bars. The city’s judicial independence is being put to the test with these high-profile political cases, with concerns raised about freedom of speech and the stifling of dissent. The chilling effect of the trial is expected to have long-lasting consequences on Hong Kong’s political landscape, creating more repression, fear, and self-censorship among its residents.

As sentencing approaches, legal experts anticipate that the defendants will be sorted into tiers based on their level of involvement, with principal offenders facing up to life imprisonment. The outcome of the trial is likely to set an example for those who dare to challenge Beijing’s authority, but the detrimental impact of this crackdown on freedom of expression and dissent cannot be ignored. The activists, once seen as the vanguard of Hong Kong’s political opposition, now face an uncertain future as they await their fate in a legal system that seems increasingly beholden to China’s interests.

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