Police officers try to control crowds as 47 pro-democracy figures face charges of “subversion”.

image captionHundreds of people gathered on Monday to show support for the pro-democracy activists facing charges
Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters have gathered at a court in Hong Kong where 47 activists face charges of “conspiracy to commit subversion”.
Police have told the crowds at the West Kowloon Magistrates Court that they are in breach of the controversial National Security Law and face fines.
Beijing enforced the law criminalising “subversive” acts last year, saying it was needed to bring stability.
Critics say it has silenced dissent and stripped Hong Kong of its autonomy.
The law came into force after a series of mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, some of which turned violent.
The 47 pro-democracy activists appearing in court on Monday – 39 men and eight women, aged between 23 and 64 – were among a group of 55 people arrested in dawn raids last month.
They had helped run an unofficial “primary” election last June to pick opposition candidates for 2020 legislative elections, which the government then postponed.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials say the primary was an attempt to overthrow the government.
On Monday, police officers were deployed to control the crowds as pro-democracy supporters queued for seats at the court hearing, many dressed in black – the colour protesters have been wearing while demonstrating.
Some chanted slogans including “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” – deemed an illegal slogan under the security law introduced last summer – and “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”.
Police warned those gathered to split into groups of no more than four or face fines.
image captionPolice officers try to control crowds of protesters who gathered outside West Kowloon Magistrates Court in Hong Kong
Those appearing at the court to face charges were told on Sunday to report to police stations for detention ahead of the hearing.
Hong Kong police said in a statement: “Police this afternoon laid a charge against 47 persons… with one count of ‘conspiracy to commit subversion’.”
The 47 are some of the territory’s best-known democracy campaigners.
They include veterans such as academic Benny Tai and politician Leung Kwok-hung, and younger protesters like Gwyneth Ho, Sam Cheung and Lester Shum.
Jimmy Sham, who leads a major non-violent protest group, remained defiant as he went to the police station.
“Democracy is never a gift from heaven. It must be earned by many with strong will,” he said. “We will remain strong and fight for what we want.”
image captionPro-democracy activist Sam Cheung hugs his wife before reporting to a police station
Before turning herself in, Gwyneth Ho posted: “I hope everyone can find their road to peace of mind and then press forward with indomitable will.”
Sam Cheung said: “I hope everyone won’t give up on Hong Kong… fight on.”
The charges carry a maximum term of life imprisonment. Bail is unlikely, with Benny Tai saying his chances were “not too great”.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Monday that the decision to bring charges against the 47 was a “deeply disturbing” step that violated the joint declaration Beijing reached with Britain when the former colony was handed back to China.
Amnesty International has described the January raids that detained the 55 as “the starkest demonstration yet of how the National Security Law has been weaponised to punish anyone who dares to challenge the establishment”.
About 100 people have so far been arrested under the security law, including prominent China critic and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who was denied bail and is in detention awaiting trial.
No trials have yet begun in full. The first is expected to be that of Tong Ying-kit, who is accused of riding a motorcycle into police officers last July. He appeared in court in November to enter a not guilty plea. He is expected to be tried by three judges rather than a jury.
media captionThe HK pro-democracy protesters who face a tough decision over continuing their fight or fleeing to the UK
A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 but under the “one country, two systems” principle.
It was supposed to guarantee certain freedoms for the territory – including freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights – which mainland China does not have.
But the National Security Law has reduced Hong Kong’s autonomy and made it easier to punish demonstrators.
The legislation introduced new crimes, including penalties of up to life in prison. Anyone found to have conspired with foreigners to provoke “hatred” of the Chinese government or the Hong Kong authorities may have committed a crime.
Trials can be held in secret and without a jury, and cases can be taken over by the mainland authorities. Mainland security personnel can legally operate in Hong Kong with impunity.
After the law was introduced, a number of pro-democracy groups disbanded out of fears for their safety.