Hong Kong Prosecutors Charge 47 With Subversion, Supporters Rally Outside Bail Hearing

In an orchestrated spectacle seemingly timed to coordinate with leaders in Beijing, 47 prominent pro-democracy supporters—including very nearly every member of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp—were crammed into a West Kowloon courtroom on Monday, March 1 for a bail hearing. They were charged the day prior with subversion under the Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL) for running in an informal primary election in July 2020, in which more than 600,000 Hong Kong people voted. If ultimately convicted, they face up to life in prison.

After adjourning for several hours when it emerged that multiple defendants were denied access to their lawyers, Monday’s hearing continued for more than ten hours without reaching a conclusion. Just before 2 a.m. it was adjourned for nine hours after one defendant fainted, and three more were sent to the emergency room after collapsing shortly afterwards. The last prison transport trucks left the courthouse at 5 a.m., taking the defendants back to jail until the hearing resumes at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, March 2.

At the South China Morning Post, Chris Lau and Brian Wong reported on demonstrations by supporters wearing black—a symbol of the 2019 protest movement—outside the courtroom during the hearing, and on defense lawyers’ accusations of prosecutors’ “draconian” handling of the case:

While asking the court to hold the 47 defendants in custody, prosecutors revealed that they needed at least three extra months for police inquiries, and could not say when those investigations would be completed.

That drew a backlash from the other side of the bench, as defence lawyers called prosecutors’ handling of the case “draconian” and raised concerns that their clients could end up staying years behind bars even before the actual trial could begin.

[…] The hearing drew hundreds of supporters in defiance of Covid-19 social-distancing rules that limit gatherings to four people at a time.

[…] The supporters displayed banners demanding the “release of all political prisoners”, and chanted familiar slogans such as “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” – a protest movement mantra which has since been deemed illegal under the national security law. […] [Source]

The 47 are not expected to be granted bail. A judgement in February by Hong Kong’s top court set an exceptionally high standard for bail for defendants charged with national security crimes, in effect reversing the favorable presumption of bail in ordinary cases and putting the onus on defendants to prove they would not commit further national security crimes. That expectation led many defendants to make exceptional and sweeping promises pending their trials. One by one, formerly outspoken activists promised to not merely remove themselves from politics, but to drastically censor their own speech, and even to pledge oaths of allegiance to Beijing.

The subversion charges against the 47 multiplies the tally of people charged under the NSL by seven. Financial Times’ Primrose Riordan and Nicolle Liu reported on the unprecedented scale of the charges in China’s modern history:

Bing Ling, a professor of at the University of Sydney, said the last time so many people had been charged with subversion in China was probably in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen protests in Beijing. “It’s quite exceptional what has been done in Hong Kong even by Chinese standards,” Ling said.

“They do charge people with subversion from time to time, but 47 in one go — I don’t know of any incidents like this in the past 10 or 20 years.” [Source]

On the morning of Monday, March 1, prosecutors’ allegations against the defendants were formally disclosed. The defendants were charged with “advocating, engaging or participating in a scheme with a view to abusing his or her powers” to obtain a controlling majority in the Legislative Council with the goals of paralyzing it. Prosecutors noted that the legal process they deemed “conspiracy” was in fact based on enumerated procedures laid out in the Basic Law. CDT has previously written about legal experts’ doubts about the strength of prosecutors’ cases against the 47 defendants.

In the afternoon, a pro-Beijing magazine published in full a February 22 speech by Xia Baolong, the head of Beijing’s office in Hong Kong. Journalists and observers were quick to remark on the timing. In the speech, Xia singled out Jimmy Lai, Benny Tai, and Joshua Wong as individuals who needed to be “severely punished under the law.” Lai, who is in jail pending his own national security trial, has the official case number NSD RN 2000 0001. Prosecutors’ allegation document revealed that Tai is NSD RN 2000 0002.

 

Inside the courtroom, defendants tried to inject humor into the proceedings., and AFP’s Xinqi Su reported on moments of levity  during the morning’s adjournment. Speaking into a hot mic, former journalist Gwyneth Ho asked to sing a song by Hong Kong boy band Mirror. District Councillor Lester Shum urged people not to lose their aspirations, as ex-legislator Lam Cheuk-ting told his wife that he loved her.

Outside the courthouse, drama punctuated the day. By early morning, enough people to encircle the block had neatly formed a line, some with in tow, for coveted tickets to watch the bail hearing. One ordinary citizen who snagged a ticket gifted it to a group of Western diplomats from six countries who were waiting in line. After deliberation, it was decided that the British consulate’s man would take the seat. Children at a primary school across the street yelled their support from a balcony, an apparent validation of the alleged revolutionary potential of 10 year-olds. A group of pro-Beijing counter-protestors waved banners for one hour, and then promptly left. Supporters’ shouts were reportedly so loud that their voices could be heard inside the courthouse. Police responded by announcing this as a violation of the NSL, and ordering them to disperse. After clearing the streets around the courthouse in the evening, they arrested a lawyer representing nine of the defendants who was holding legal documents as he tried to enter the court.

In the end, just 20 of 47 defendants had their submissions to the court completed on the first day of the bail hearing. But the events outside the courtroom show how, despite the interminable pace of the legal process in Hong Kong, broader mechanisms for dissent and free expression in the city are being stamped out at whirlwind speed. Proceedings are expected to resume at 11:30 a.m. on March 2.

Beyond this mass hearing, additional events marked the day of March 1. The high-profile trial of seven pro-democracy figures for illegal assembly, including Martin Lee, Margaret Ng, and Leung Kwok-hung, was adjourned since Leung was stuck at his other high-profile bail hearing on the other side of the harbor.

A day earlier as formal charges were levied, emotional scenes recorded what could be the last moments of for many of the dozens first arrested in a massive pre-dawn raid in January. They had been ordered to report to police stations across the city at 2 p.m. Eight walked back out, including lawyer and American citizen John Clancey, but Phoebe Kong notes they “didn’t completely get off the hook” and were ordered to report back to police stations on May 4.

The significance of the timing of the charges has not been lost to many observers. Coming days before the “Two Sessions” convene in Beijing, where top leaders are expected to discuss Hong Kong and issue sweeping changes to its electoral rules. The arrestees were ordered to report to police stations on February 28, a day of infamy in Taiwan after KMT forces began killing thousands of anti-government protestors on that date in 1947, marking the beginning of the White Terror. Clancey highlighted the significance of May 4, the date he is required to report back to the police, as a celebrated day for change and democracy in China.

In the days leading up to the charges on March 1, arrestees spoke about the various ways they sorted their affairs and prepared for lives in detention. Anticipating being charged, several activists, including Lester Shum and Sam Cheung, recently married their partners. At the hearing on Monday, Cheung’s lawyers revealed that his wife was pregnant while pleading for the court to grant him bail. Many took to social media or spoke to reporters outside of police stations on Sunday to send last messages of encouragement to their supporters. The Guardian published translated final messages from many of the 47 that were shared on Twitter:

Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, 43, former LegCo member who resigned in protest in September 2020.
“Today, to be guilty of our common ideals, I am deeply honoured. I have received your well-wishes, and I wish everyone fulfilment each day. No matter the situation, fill everyone around you with love and with hope.”

Henry Wong Pak-yu, 39, district councillor.
“To have a clear conscience, is not to be agreeable, but to be good; to prevent misdeeds from happening.”

Jeremy Tam Man-ho, 45, Civic party member, former LegCo member who resigned with colleagues in November 2020.
“Go peacefully, and be upright – sometimes it’s hard to do both, and we can only work hard to practise the latter, and wish for peace in our hearts. History will stand on the side of justice, so sit straight, drink water, and dawn will eventually come.”

Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam, 30, intended to run in the elections.
“Many people probably didn’t start thinking about exile until after [Nathan Law, politician and activist who was leader of Demosistō from 2016 to 2018, he later fled to the UK]. But for me, I knew by 7/1/19 that the cost of exile was more unbearable for me than anything else. So a decision that, to you, looks like caging a lion, to me, is a trade off that I am willing to bear. I want peace of mind more than peace, and the two are sometimes opposites. I wish that you all may find peace of mind, and then, to press forward.” [Source]

In a video titled “If today is the last day of freedom,” Stand News followed nine people in their last days as they prepared for prison (English closed captions available):

 

Separately, a senior civil servant appointed by the government to address “failures” at independent public broadcaster RTHK took office on Monday. Three senior journalists and producers resigned later that day, including the head of the public and current affairs division. At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the CUHK student union cabinet, which received 98% of the student body’s votes, stepped down, after the university disavowed the union and banned it from campus, citing its political stance. Student representatives said their families had received threats. CUHK’s administration said it had “absolute respect for academic freedom and freedom of speech.”

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