Two major national security trials are putting the spotlight back on civil rights in Hong Kong. Here’s what to know

Police move people on as they gathered in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 4, 2021, after police closed the venue where Hong Kong people traditionally gather annually to mourn the victims of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 which the authorities have banned citing the coronavirus pandemic and vowed to stamp out any protests on the anniversary.

Police clear an area of the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 4, 2021 after earlier closing a nearby venue where huge crowds had in the past gathered for a vigil mourning the victims of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images/File

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The fates of many of Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy figures are at stake in two ongoing trials that spotlight the impact of the Beijing-imposed national security law on the once outspoken city.

On Monday, hearings began in the closely watched trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai, a major figure in Hong Kong’s press landscape who has been accused of “colluding with foreign forces.”

And last month, lawyers made closing remarks in a separate national security case against dozens of activists and politicians known as the “Hong Kong 47.” The defendants, including former student activist Joshua Wong, were arrested en masse nearly three years ago for holding an unofficial primary election to decide who should contest city lawmaker elections.

The twin trials are among the highest profile to date under the sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020 in the wake of massive and at times violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong say the law “restored stability” and closed loopholes that allowed interference of “foreign forces.” They’ve denied the law has suppressed freedoms.

But rights organizationsmedia groups, and critics say it has transformed the legal landscape and slashed basic civil and political rights in Hong Kong – a city once known for its robust culture of protest and free press and lauded for its international standard legal system.

What the courts decide in both trials will send a strong signal of how political acts — which many argue were in line with the normal functioning of the city’s vibrant civil society — are now treated.

The trials, whose verdicts are expected next year, also come as Hong Kong plans to expand the number of national security crimes with new legislation. Officials say a new law will plug “gaps” in Beijing’s rules, but critics fear it could further degrade freedoms – and international confidence – in the city.

Here’s what you need to know: 

Who’s on trial and what are the charges?

Lai, 76, was among the first people to be arrested under the national security law after it came into effect on June 30, 2020. He is now on trial for three counts of colluding with foreign forces under the national security law and a separate charge under the city’s colonial-era sedition act. Lai has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The founder of the pro-democracy, anti-Beijing newspaper Apple Daily had already been jailed for roughly three years and handed other sentences in relation to the protests and business operations at the paper’s premises.

Lai had long been an outspoken critic of China’s ruling Communist Party – a view reflected in the pages of his now-defunct newspaper. During the 2019 protests, he traveled to the United States to meet with politicians to discuss the political situation in Hong Kong – a move seen by Beijing as colluding with foreign forces to undermine China’s security.

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