Landmark national security trial of Hong Kong democracy activists begins. Here's what you need to know

Police stand guard outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' courts in Hong Kong on November 25, 2022.

Hong Kong (CNN)Some were seasoned politicians and veteran protest leaders. Others were academics, unionists and health care workers. They hailed from different generations and held a range of political views, but were brought together by what they say was a shared commitment to Hong Kong's democratic future.

Now, the "Hong Kong 47," as the group of pro-democracy activists in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory has come to be known, will start appearing in court from Monday facing charges that could send them to prison for life.
Sixteen of the defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges laid against them and are expected to be the first ones to take the stand.
    Their alleged crime? Organizing and participating in an unofficial primary election that prosecutors have called a "massive and well-organized scheme to subvert the Hong Kong government."
      This is Hong Kong's largest national security law trial since Beijing imposed the sweeping legislation on the city following mass anti-government protests in 2019. The law criminalizes vaguely defined acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, all of which are punishable by life in prison.
        The landmark trial -- the first involving subversion charges -- is expected to run for weeks, but its implications could last for years or even decades in a city critics say is rapidly losing its political freedoms and autonomy.
        John Burns, emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the trial of the democrats is a "test of will" of Beijing's capacity to completely wipe out organized opposition in Hong Kong.
          Burns said arresting the democrats and pressing charges against them was meant to both intimidate and eliminate the opposition, either by chasing them out of Hong Kong into exile or by jailing them.
          "It is a process of removing them. By shutting down political parties, shutting down trade unions, they are shutting down the basis of the support for organized opposition," Burns said.
          The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied such accusations. Instead, it insists the law has ended chaos and restored stability to the city.
          "Hong Kong prides itself on the rule of law; law enforcement agencies are duty-bound to take action against unlawful acts, regardless of the political background of the suspects. Arrests made are based on evidence and strictly in accordance with relevant laws and regulations," the government said in a statement in response to the criticism.
          Here is what you need to know about the case:

          What are they on trial for?

          The 47 pro-democracy figures have been charged with "conspiracy to commit subversion" under the national security law over their alleged roles in an unofficial primary election in July 2020.
          The vote was held ahead of a legislative election to find out which contenders would be best placed to bid against pro-Beijing candidates.
          Such contests are held in democracies around the world, and involve political parties selecting the strongest candidates for an election. Hong Kong's democrats had previously held such votes in an attempt to match the organization and discipline of the rival pro-Beijing camp and avoid splitting the opposition.
          Authorities, however, said the primary vote was a "vicious plot" intended to "paralyze the government and undermine state power" by winning a majority of seats and using the mandate to block legislation.
          The government's Electoral Affairs Commission also responded that the "so-called" primaries were "not part of the electoral procedures of the Legislative Council Election or other public elections."
          People line up to cast their ballots in the unofficial primary election, organized by pro-democracy opposition parties on July 11, 2020.
          In January 2021, the 47 democrats were arrested en masse in a dawn raid. Since then, many have been remanded in custody or are in jail for other protest-related offenses. Fifteen have been granted bail, but two of them breached bail conditions last year and were brought under custody, according to police.
          It is extremely rare for defendants not to be granted bail in Hong Kong under the common law system. However, the national security law stipulates that defendants cannot be granted bail unless the court is convinced they will "not continue to commit acts endangering national security."
          A Department of Justice spokesman told CNN that bail application in cases concerning offenses "endangering national security" has been "handled fairly and adjudicated impartially by the court having regard to admissible evidence, applicable laws and merits of the case."
          The cases will be heard without a jury, deviating from the common law tradition. The subversion trial is being heard by a bench of three High Court Judges designated national security legislation.

          Who are the Hong Kong 47?

          The defendants include a wide variety of political activists who describe themselves as ranging from moderate democrats to radical