HONG KONG, Dec. 16 (Reuters) – For many Hong Kong Democrats, this year’s parliamentary elections were meant to be a historic moment for the movement in the face of what they saw as a growing encroachment on Hong Kong’s way of life Kong by China.
Democrats believed they would get a majority that would give them a say in the future of the former British colony.
But instead of holding rallies for the next election, many are now detained and awaiting trial, living a daily prison routine of sleep, exercise, meals and study while being rationed to two pens and six pounds a month. Others fled the territory.
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âIt all happened so fast,â said Sunny Cheung, 25, an activist seeking asylum in the United States to avoid prosecution. âA year later, there are hardly any true Democrats left. They are either in prison or in exile.
“This is why we need to stick to our principles and not forget our history, especially when many leading Democrats have sacrificed their freedom and are now behind bars.”
Reuters spoke to six Democrats, some in prison, others in exile or on bail, ahead of Sunday’s poll. The vote was scheduled for September 2020 but has been postponed due to COVID-19 reasons.
In February, police charged 47 Hong Kong democracy activists with conspiring to subvert for their role in unofficial “primary elections” after Beijing imposed a national security law on the city last year. .
Shortly after the arrests, the Chinese parliament announced sweeping changes to the electoral landscape, cutting the number of directly elected seats from half to about a quarter, while an election committee filled with pro-Beijing figures will select more. one third of legislative seats.
A new oversight body was also set up at China’s request and headed by senior Hong Kong officials to screen potential candidates to ensure that only âpatriotsâ come forward, the government said.
Since then, courts have repeatedly given the prosecution more time to prepare its case, while most of those arrested remain in six prisons across Hong Kong awaiting the start of their trials.
At the end of November, magistrate Peter Law adjourned the case until March, in part to allow more time for the translation of nearly 10,000 pages of documentary evidence put forward by the prosecution.
Three lawyers for the Democrats, speaking anonymously in an effort to protect their clients, told Reuters the prosecution has yet to provide a detailed summary of its allegations, making it difficult to provide legal advice, unlike standard criminal proceedings. No reason has been publicly given for the delay.
The Hong Kong Bureau of Constitutional Affairs and the Justice Department did not respond to questions from Reuters.
Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng said in a statement Thursday that “the age, profession and origin of the candidates are more diverse than in previous elections.”
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the elections were now “much more representative with a more balanced turnout” and would elect those “who are patriots to rule the city”.
The 33 Democrats currently behind bars will not appear in court again until March, with no indication as to when their trial will begin.
Stanley, Hong Kong’s largest men’s prison, is home to prominent Democrats who played a role in the primary elections, including Benny Tai, 57, and Leung Kwok-hung, 65. Joshua Wong, 25, is serving a sentence in a prison on another island.
Some have opted for solitary confinement, others have been integrated into larger groups of prisoners.
Inmates such as Claudia Mo, 64, and Tiffany Yuen, 28, who also participated in the primary elections, are being held in a separate prison in the New Territories. Two people familiar with the situation said Yuen was placed in solitary confinement in September after what authorities described as unrest at the prison.
The Corrections Department told Reuters that while it would not comment on an individual case, it was “authorized to impose separate confinement as a punishment for those detained who have committed breaches of prison discipline.”
Jailed Democrats describe a daily routine of sleep, exercise, eating and studying.
After waking up just after dawn, one hour is allowed for exercise and showers. Male inmates can run or play sports, including football and basketball, with common brown shoes taken from a cart, under the supervision of correctional officers.
For those detained but not found guilty of any charges, two visitors are allowed per day, as are food deliveries. Some have taken to writing essays, books and plays with their ration of two pens, according to three people with direct knowledge, while others read or study, with six books allowed per month.
“POINT OF RESISTANCE”
Britain detailed arrests of Democrats in its semi-annual Hong Kong report released Tuesday, warning “restricting space for the free expression of alternative views continues to weaken executive checks and balances “.
The March electoral changes “meant that parties which are not closely aligned with the continent or which are not pro-establishment will be almost entirely excluded from the legislature,” he added.
Fourteen members of the group, which includes former lawmakers and lawyers, have been released on bail.
Despite the legal risks, several of those who spoke to Reuters said Hong Kong people should ignore the election or vote blank. The city’s anti-corruption watchdog has arrested 10 people in recent weeks for allegedly inciting to vote white.
“There isn’t much we can do now, but it’s a point of resistance,” said another Democrat, referring to the blank vote and avoiding the election. “Whether you are in exile, in prison, or in Hong Kong society, do not let the outside environment eat away at you.”
In the primary ballot last July, Democrats held street kiosks and debated their agendas with citizens and rivals, in a bid to field their best candidates.
Almost 600,000 people voted at pop-up stations, or about 15% of the city’s 4 million registered voters.
A district council election in late 2019 saw Democrats win 90% of the nearly 500 seats with a record turnout of 71%.
While Democrats in prison can vote, those abroad are banned, although all major opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, have decided not to contest the election on the grounds that it is undemocratic.
Authorities scrambled to gain support for the elections, arranging free transportation to polling stations and using social media to urge people to vote.
âThey want to see a lot of people vote to show that there is no problem, everything is normal,â Cheung said. “But we have to tell Beijing that we will not cooperate with the act.”
Exiled activist Nathan Law, who was also a candidate in the primary elections, told Reuters this month that the December 19 poll was nothing more than a “selection by Beijing.”
Of the 153 candidates vying for the 90 seats, an overwhelming majority are pro-Beijing and pro-establishment figures, with only a handful of so-called moderates.
A senior Chinese official, Xia Baolong, recently said that “destabilizing forces” would be banned from running and that the ballot would be “positive”.
Lam, the Hong Kong leader, also said earlier that Democrats, as long as they are “patriotic”, are welcome.
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Report by James Pomfret; Additional reporting from Hong Kong and London newsrooms; Editing by Lincoln Feast.
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