HONG KONG -- Hundreds of black-clad opposition supporters rallied outside a Hong Kong court on Monday as dozens of leading pro-democracy politicians and activists were formally charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the city's national security law.
Prosecutors accused 47 people, including prominent former lawmakers and incumbent district councilors, with organizing and participating in an unofficial primary in July 2020 to choose opposition legislative candidates.
Those charged, aged 23 to 64, are said to have subverted "state power by organizing, planning, committing or participating by force or threat of force or other unlawful means," according to a court document presented to West Kowloon Magistracy on Monday.
Prosecutors argued the opposition figures had been "seriously interfering in, disrupting or undermining the performance of duties and functions" of the Hong Kong government, by attempting to seize control of the city's legislature and paralyze government operations, the court document showed.
The supporters gathered outside the courthouse carried banners and chanted slogans reminiscent of 2019 anti-government protests. Some echoed the hand gestures adopted by protesters in Myanmar.
Police later warned the supporters that they too could be arrested under the national security law after some chanted slogans deemed sensitive to the authorities, such as "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" and "No rioters, only tyranny."
Consular representatives from Britain, the U.S., Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the EU were also among those in line to hear the case. The U.S., the EU, and the U.K. have all denounced the prosecution and called for the immediate release of the democracy campaigners.
Last year, more than 600,000 voters participated in the primary organized by the pro-democracy camp shortly after the national security law took effect. The opposition hoped to coordinate to win a majority of seats in the Legislative Council for the first time.
If it had been successful, the opposition camp could have potentially blocked budgets and stalled bills to boost its leverage against Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam. In Hong Kong, the chief executive has to resign if the budget is rejected by the legislature twice.
The legislative poll was ultimately postponed until September 2021 as the government cited coronavirus concerns.
In a mass arrest in early January, police detained 55 prominent pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, including legal scholar Benny Tai, Democratic Party Chairman Wu Chi-wai and former lawmakers Alvin Yeung and Jeremy Tam. Activists Joshua Wong and Tam Tak-chi, already in jail from other cases, were also charged. Eight in that group were not charged this week, including John Clancey, an American lawyer and treasurer of advocacy group Power for Democracy, one of the organizers of the primary. The group disbanded over the weekend, its Facebook page said.
A total of 99 people have been arrested so far under the national security law since it took effect in last June, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who has been repeatedly denied bail.
Meanwhile, some primary candidates have gone into exile, including former lawmakers Ted Hui and Nathan Law. Both of them are currently in the U.K., where Law is seeking asylum.
The law, seen by critics as undermining Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" governance framework, provides criminal penalties for acts of subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. Suspects can be extradited to mainland China for trial and imprisoned for life.