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Hong Kong's biggest national security trial to date kicked off this week

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hong Kong's biggest national security trial to date kicked off this week. Sixteen of the city's most prominent lawmakers, activists and journalists are being tried for subversion against China after they organized an informal primary. NPR's Emily Feng reports it's a landmark legal case that will test whether Hong Kong's judicial system remains impartial.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Only 16 people are contesting their charges of conspiracy to commit subversion, for which the maximum penalty is life in prison. Thirty-one other activists arrested at the same time have pled guilty and are waiting to be sentenced. All of them have been detained without bail for nearly two years, awaiting trial.

BAGGIO LEUNG: And they are facing a Beijing hand-picked judge with no juries. And so when we combine those both together, you can imagine the result.

FENG: That's Baggio Leung, an activist and former Hong Kong lawmaker who now lives in the U.S. He knows many of those arrested. And among those contesting their charges this week are former lawmaker Claudia Mo, journalist Gwyneth Ho and Professor Benny Tai. They were at the heart of a loose coalition of pro-democracy activists active during mass anti-government protests in 2019. And with them behind bars now, gone is much of Hong Kong's political opposition. That's Beijing's intention.

LEUNG: I think they are trying to create a chilling effect to the world and to Hong Kongers to, OK, this is what I will do if you come out again.

FENG: The 16 activists are going to trial after they tried to organize a primary poll. It was meant to gauge how much political support they had before heading into legislative elections that were ultimately postponed. And that effort was seen as treasonous under a national security law Beijing pushed into action in 2020.

JOEY SIU: And back before the implementation of the national security law, you see all these political activities and political parties still surviving in Hong Kong.

FENG: That's Joey Siu. She's another Hong Kong activist who once campaigned for one of the 47 activists arrested. Now that law has decimated Hong Kong's once-vibrant independent media and civil society.

SIU: You see that all these kinds of political activities have been really uprooted from the scene of Hong Kong.

FENG: The arrest of the political figureheads from many of these parties means that the limited multiparty governance of Hong Kong is over, and the law can be used to enforce the will of just one party - that of Beijing.

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.