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Members of League of Social Democrats scuffle with police outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts ahead of the national security trail for pro-democracy activists, in Hong Kong, on Feb. 6.Anthony Kwan/The Associated Press

Called on to enter a plea at the start of Hong Kong’s largest-ever national-security trial Monday, Leung Kwok-hung said he had nothing to answer for.

“It is not a crime to act against totalitarianism,” said the former lawmaker, known as “Longhair” for his iconic locks, which were cut short in prison. It was a small gesture of defiance in a trial that has come to symbolize just how thoroughly Hong Kong’s parliamentary opposition has been neutered by a crackdown that began in mid-2020.

That was when Beijing imposed new national-security legislation on the city, criminalizing subversion, secession and collusion with foreign powers. Mr. Leung is one of 47 opposition figures charged under the law in connection with a primary held in July, 2020, in which more than half a million Hong Kongers cast ballots to choose members of the pro-democracy camp to contest upcoming legislative elections.

Those elections never took place. They were postponed because of the pandemic, and by the time a vote was held – in December, 2021 – it was under a completely different, “patriots-only” system, with most opposition politicians barred from taking part and record-low turnout for the minority of seats still democratically elected.

Even under the old system – with the legislature roughly split between elected seats and those chosen by business and professional groupings – the opposition had never won a majority, despite the fact that more than 55 per cent of the public consistently voted for pro-democracy parties. The 2020 primary was an audacious attempt, after local elections that democrats swept in a landslide, to concentrate that support. The hope was to use any resultant majority in parliament to force concessions from Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed chief executive.

Whether democrats would have won a majority will never be known, but prosecutors said the plan – constitutional on paper and drafted by former law professor Benny Tai – “was a clear attempt to subvert state power,” designed to paralyze the legislature and “ultimately bring down the government as a whole.”

“The endgame … was to bring about an acute crisis in Hong Kong, triggering a bloody crackdown,” prosecutors said in their submission to the court, according to local media.

If convicted of subversion, the defendants face between three and 10 years in prison. Several so-far unnamed “principal offenders” – likely Mr. Tai and three other organizers of the primary – could be jailed for life.

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In this file photo, a supporter holds a placard with the photos of some of the 47 pro-democracy defendants outside a court in Hong Kong, on July 8, 2021.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

Most of the 47 have already pleaded guilty in pretrial proceedings but will have to wait until the case wraps up to learn their sentences. With only a handful having been granted bail and at least 90 days of hearings scheduled, a verdict will not come for many months, further extending the almost two years most defendants have spent behind bars.

At the West Kowloon Law Court on Monday, about 20 defendants were crowded into a glass holding pen, separated from a panel of three judges by a crowd of bewigged lawyers. Most of those present were pleading not guilty, and two had changed their pleas since earlier proceedings.

“My lords, I failed to commit subversion against a totalitarian regime,” said one of the two, Ng Kin-wai, a former elected district councillor. “I plead guilty.”

It took most of the morning for pleas to be heard, with Justice Andrew Chan at one point admonishing the audience when they laughed at a defendant’s quip. “This is a very solemn occasion,” said the judge, who like his two colleagues had been hand-picked by the government to hear national-security cases.

Also in court were several defendants who have already pleaded guilty. Joshua Wong, the onetime poster boy of the city’s opposition movement, sat on the defendant benches flanked by two prison guards, as did Lester Shum, another leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Claudia Mo, a former lawmaker who has pleaded guilty, sat alongside Gwyneth Ho, who loudly stated her innocence and argued with the judges over procedural matters. Both are former journalists, and the 66-year-old Ms. Mo was denied bail last year over WhatsApp conversations with reporters, for whom she was long a reliable source of piercing criticism of the government.

“The detained 47 are the most prominent representatives of all Hong Kongers,” Ted Hui, a former lawmaker now in exile, said in a statement Sunday. “I call on leaders from free countries to make the strongest statements ever to support them and call for their release. It’s not just about their individual freedom, but the freedom of all Hong Kongers, and freedom in the world.”

Diplomats representing the European Union, Canada, Britain, the United States, Australia and several other countries were in attendance Monday. There was a heavy police presence outside the court, with riot police and sniffer dogs patrolling the crowd, and a roadblock set up nearby.

The trial of the “Hong Kong 47″ is just one of several prominent prosecutions launched since the passage of the national-security law. A case involving Stand News, an opposition-leaning online publication, is continuing, as is the prosecution of Jimmy Lai, the former publisher of Apple Daily, once Hong Kong’s most popular newspaper.

Both outlets were shuttered after their executives were arrested, including Stand News board member Denise Ho, a Canadian citizen. Other publications have also closed in the wake of the security law, and some prominent journalists have fled overseas. Many activists have also gone into exile, while political parties and civil-society groups have disbanded or been prosecuted out of existence. Only Mr. Leung’s League of Social Democrats (LSD) remains as an active opposition force.

Millions once took to the streets in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, but a brief protest by LSD members outside the court Monday showed the yawning power gap that now exists between the opposition and the government. After Chan Po-ying, the LSD leader and wife of Mr. Leung, and two others unfurled a banner, they were quickly surrounded by riot police and shuffled away from the court entrance.

“This is a caged democracy,” Ms. Chan said.

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