By Tommy Walker
After a four-day hearing, a Hong Kong court ruled Thursday that 47 pro-democracy advocates accused of subversion under a national security law must remain in custody.
The West Kowloon Magistrates Court denied bail to 31 of the activists, while another identified as law professor Benny Tai withdrew his bail petition because he was being held in another case.
According to local reports, the presiding magistrate, Victor So Wa-tak, ruled there was no evidence to sufficiently prove the defendants would not endanger national security, and therefore denied their bail.
The remaining 15 people were initially granted bail, prompting celebratory cheers from crowds gathered outside. A short time later, the 15 were remanded to custody after justice officials appealed the bail decision. Hong Kong’s High Court was expected to review the bail decision.
Defendants at the West Kowloon court reportedly shouted, “Political prisoners are not guilty; Hong Kongers won’t be defeated!” before they were led away. The 47 were formally charged with conspiracy to subvert state power.
As the court proceedings continued into the evening, some of the supporters who had gathered outside held banners and chanted banned slogans. Police responded by raising a purple flag to indicate to the crowds they were violating the security law.
The 47 defendants were part of a group of 55 pro-democracy figures who were arrested in January during pre-dawn raids in connection with Hong Kong’s unofficial “primary” elections held last July. The vote allowed residents to pick opposition candidates ahead of Legislative Council elections that were to have been held last year but were postponed. The remaining eight people have not yet been charged.
Former legislators in custody
Those who were initially granted bail before it was revoked included former legislators Jeremy Tam, Helena Wong and Kwok-Ka-ki.
Former legislator Claudia Mo, former journalist Gwyneth Ho and activist Owen Chow were also among those remanded to custody.
Lawyer Hang Tung Chow, who represents Owen Chow, told VOA the court provided no reason as to why her client was refused bail. She said they would appeal the ruling.
Of the 32 people denied bail outright, all but seven will return to court one week from Friday for a bail review. All of the defendants will return to court on May 31 for a second hearing.
Self-exiled pro-democracy activist Baggio Leung, now in Washington, criticized this week’s hearing in an interview with VOA.
He said, “To put all people in jail before trial, detained for five days since the bail hearing, shuttled between detention centers and the court and had little opportunity to sleep. … It is the so-called ‘rule of law’ of Hong Kong in 2021. This is a joke to the world.”
Former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, now in self-exile in Britain, told VOA he was “heartbroken” at the decision.
Hui fled Hong Kong amid criminal charges against him. Of the current situation in Hong Kong, he said, “It would have been me suffering. No word to describe the misery.”
Under the “one country, two systems” agreement signed by Britain and China in 1997, when Britain returned the city to Chinese rule, Beijing promised that Hong Kong would retain a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047.
After pro-democracy protests in 2019, Beijing implemented the national security law that took effect in Hong Kong on June 30, 2020. The legislation prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted. Street protests have stopped, slogans are banned and several high-profile activists are jailed or have fled the city.
Political commentator Joseph Cheng said the lengthy hearing was set up to ensure there was no conflict in the court ruling.
“Most senior barristers believe that the present arrangements are bad. The judiciary could have used three judges in three separate trials. But the authorities don’t want to see discrepancies among the judges if this is the case,” Cheng told VOA.
Opposition effectively barred
Cheng added the current charge for the 47 activists was “loosely defined” to underscore that no effective opposition can exist under the security law.
“Any serious challenges of the government and the Chinese authorities will be treated as subversion,” Cheng told VOA.
Ma Ngok, a Hong Kong political scientist and professor, told VOA he expected some of the 47 charged would be granted bail based on the length of the hearings. But he acknowledged the widely interpreted perception of subversion was an issue for opposition figures.
“It’s difficult for democrats because they don’t know what will cross the line,” he said.
Ma acknowledged there were added concerns about the status of the democratic opposition party, as its leaders are not able to participate in future elections.
The national security legislation limits pro-democracy opposition camps because of the harsh punishments for sensitive campaigns such as independence or human rights. And since November, there has been no legal pro-democracy opposition in the Hong Kong Legislative Council, as all 19 pro-democracy legislators left their seats after four lawmakers had been disqualified.
“They have to find new candidates because the candidates for the 2020 election will already be banned, because all of them are arrested. But what kind of position and platform are these candidates going to put forward?” Ma said.