HONG KONG (REUTERS) - For scores of Hong Kong democrats, this year's legislative elections were supposed to be a landmark moment for the movement in the face of what they saw as increasing encroachment on Hong Kong's way of life by China.
Democrats had thought they would win a majority that would give them a strong say in the future of the former British colony.
But instead of holding rallies for the upcoming election, many are now detained and awaiting trial, living a daily prison routine of sleep, exercise, meals and study while rationed to two pens and six books a month.
Others have fled the territory.
"Everything happened so fast," said activist Sunny Cheung, 25, who is seeking asylum in the United States to avoid prosecution.
"One year later, there are hardly any real democrats left. They are either in jail or in exile."
"This is the reason we must stick to our principles and not forget our history, especially when many leading democrats 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 (Dec 19) poll.
The vote had been scheduled for September 2020, but was postponed on Covid-19 grounds.
In February, police charged 47 Hong Kong democracy campaigners with conspiracy to commit subversion for their role in an unofficial "primary election" after Beijing imposed a national security law on the city last year.
Soon after the arrests, China's Parliament announced sweeping changes to the electoral landscape, reducing the number of directly elected seats from half to around a quarter, while an electoral committee stacked with pro-Beijing figures will select more than a third of the legislative seats.
A new vetting body was also set up at China's behest and headed by senior Hong Kong officials to screen potential candidates to ensure only "patriots" run, according to government statements.
Since then, the government prosecution has repeatedly been granted more time by the courts to prepare its case, while most of those arrested remain in six prisons across Hong Kong pending the start of their trial.
In late November, Magistrate Peter Law adjourned the case until March next year, partly 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, in a departure from standard criminal procedures.
No reason has been publicly given for this delay.
Hong Kong's Constitutional Affairs bureau and the Department of Justice did not respond to Reuters' questions.
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng said in a statement on Thursday the "age, profession and background of the candidates are more diverse than those in previous elections".
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has said the elections were now "much more representative with more balanced participation" and would elect those "who are patriotic to govern the city".
The 33 democrats now behind bars won't appear in court again until next March, with no indication yet on when their trial will begin.
Hong Kong's largest men's prison, Stanley, holds high-profile democrats who played a role in the primary election including Benny Tai, 57, and Leung Kwok-hung, 65.
Joshua Wong, 25, is serving time at a jail on another island.
Some have opted for solitary confinement, others have been integrated into larger groups of prisoners.
Female inmates such as Claudia Mo, 64, and Tiffany Yuen, 28, who also took part in the primary election 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 the authorities described as unrest at the prison.
The Correctional Services Department told Reuters that while it wouldn't comment on an individual case, it is "empowered to impose separate confinement as punishment on persons in custody who have committed offences against prison discipline".
The jailed democrats describe a daily routine of sleep, exercise, meals and study.
After reveille just after dawn, an hour is allowed for exercise and showers.
Male inmates can run or play sports including football and basketball with communal brown shoes taken from a trolley, under guard from correctional officers.
For those held in custody but not convicted of any charges, two visitors are allowed daily, as are deliveries of food.
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 a month.
'Point of resistance'
Britain detailed the arrests of the democrats in its six-monthly report on Hong Kong released on Tuesday, warning that the "curtailing of space for the free expression of alternative views continues to weaken checks and balances on executive power".
The March electoral changes this year "meant that parties not closely aligned with the mainland or that are not pro-establishment will be excluded almost entirely from the legislature", it added.
Fourteen of the group, which includes former legislators and lawyers, have been granted bail.
Despite legal risks, several of those who spoke to Reuters said Hong Kong people should ignore the election or cast blank ballots.
The city's anti-corruption watchdog arrested 10 people in recent weeks for alleged incitement to cast blank votes.
"There is little we can do now, but this is a point of resistance," said another of the democrats, referring to the casting of blank votes and shunning the election.
"Whether you're in exile, or in jail, or a part of Hong Kong society still, don't let the external environment corrode you."
In the primary poll last July, democrats ran street booths and debated their platforms with citizens and rivals in a bid to put forward their best candidates.
Nearly 600,000 people cast ballots at pop-up stations - around 15 per cent of the city's four million registered voters.
A district council election in late 2019 saw the democrats sweep 90 per cent of the nearly 500 seats with a record turnout rate of 71 per cent.
While democrats in prison can vote, those abroad are barred, though all mainstream opposition parties including the Democratic Party have decided not to contest the election on the grounds it is undemocratic.
The authorities have been working to drum up support for the election, arranging free transport to polling stations and taking to social media to urge people to cast votes.
"They want to see many people vote to show that there's no problem, everything is normal," said activist Cheung.
"But we must tell Beijing that we will not cooperate with the act."
Exiled activist Nathan Law, who was also a candidate in the primary election, told Reuters this month the Dec 19 poll was no more than a "selection by Beijing".
Of the 153 candidates running for the 90 seats, an overwhelming majority are pro-Beijing and pro-establishment figures, with only a handful of so-called moderates.
Senior Chinese official Xia Baolong said recently that "destabilising forces" would be barred from running and the poll would be "positive".
Ms Lam, Hong Kong's leader, also said earlier that democrats, as long as they proved "patriotic", were welcome to run.