A Hong Kong court is deciding whether to grant bail to 47 pro-democracy figures pending trial over allegations of subversion under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Meanwhile, lawyer Leo Yau – representing defendants including Chung Kam-lun and Andrew Chiu – was arrested outside the West Kowloon court late on Monday according to local media. It remains unclear why Yau was arrested. HKFP has reached out to police for confirmation and comment.

Leo Yau
Leo Yau . File Photo: Open University.

The case was heard in front of Chief Magistrate Victor So at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on Monday. The hearing officially began at around 3.30 pm, but the court only managed to hear the bail applications of seven defendants by 10.30 pm. It is estimated that the hearing will go on for at least three more hours.

The group – consisting of 39 men and eight women – are charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” in connection with an unofficial primary election for the now-postponed 2020 Legislative Council election.

Former law professor and leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement Benny Tai, jailed activist Joshua Wong and ex-lawmakers including Alvin Yeung, Claudia Mo, Eddie Chu and Ray Chan were among those brought to court. Other defendants included district councillors and high-profile democracy campaigners.

Citizens' Radio
Citizens’ Radio holding up a banner that reads “Free all political prisoners.” Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

All but one appeared in court on Monday to face charges of “conspiracy to commit subversion” after participating in a primary legislative election held last July. District councillor Chui Chi-kin did not attend as he remains in hospital.

The detained democrats – aged 23 to 64 – were held in police custody overnight after the force requested they report to a station on Sunday afternoon – more than a month earlier than the scheduled date. They were apprehended in early January amid the city’s biggest national security round-up yet. Eight other individuals arrested on that day have yet to be charged.

Subversion charges

The defendant’s dock was packed – some democrats were stood and sat behind the glass windows of the dock, while others took a seat outside the dock. They waved to each other before the hearing began, with one democrat telling the other: “You got thinner.”

West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts
West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Ex-legislator Lam Cheuk-ting from the Democratic Party tested the microphone inside the courtroom and said: “Can the mic pick up what I say? My wife, I love you.”

According to the charge sheet, the democrats stand accused of conspiring together with a view to subvert the state power by organising or participating in a scheme with an intention to abuse their power and functions after being elected as a legislator.

Police said the defendants aimed to obtain a legislative majority to “indiscriminately refuse to pass any budgets or public expenditure” to be proposed by the government. They also planned to “compel” the chief executive to dissolve the legislature so as to “paralyse” government operations and ultimately forcing the city’s leader to resign, the force said.

The charge sheet made reference to Article 50 and Article 52 of the Basic Law which would have allowed the democrats to take such action, but claimed they acted “[w]ith a view to carrying out the scheme, to stand or not to stand as candidates in the LegCo election, and/or inciting, procuring, inducing or causing others to stand or not to stand as candidates in the election.”

It accused them of “seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions in accordance with the law by the body of HKSAR.”

democratic camp primaries legco 2020
(Top, left to right) Winnie Yu, Tiffany Yuen, Frankie Fung, Kinda Li, Henry Wong, Sam Cheung, Ng Kin-wai, Ventus Lau, Gwyneth Ho, Eddie Chu. (Bottom, left to right) Fergus Leung, Sunny Cheung, Joshua Wong, Lester Shum, Wong Ji-yuet, Owen Chow. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Most defence lawyers opposed to the prosecution’s application to postpone the hearing until May 31 while objecting to the granting of bail to all defendants. Prosecutor Maggie Yang said police needed time to conduct further investigations, including examining and analysing digital devices seized, such as computers, hard drives, mobile phones and SIM cards.

Yang said the three months will be spent analysing funding flows and so the force can approach media companies for footage of relevant press conferences, as well as taking witness statements from government officers.

The defence argued that the proposed adjournment was “far too long” and would be “unfair” to the defendants. They argued the prosecution should not have laid charges at the moment if police investigation or evidence-gathering process was not “mature” enough.

Representatives for several incumbent district councillors said suspending the case until May would “seriously affect” their public duties.

Senior counsel Alan Leong, representing four Civic Party politicians in the case, questioned why the authorities had “rushed” to press charges against the democrats.

“What’s the rush? [Are you] rushing for the Two Sessions?” the Civic Party chairman asked the prosecution, referring to the annual meetings of China’s rubber-stamp parliament and its top political advisory body in Beijing this Thursday.

Senior counsel Paul Harris for the Democratic Party’s Helena Wong argued that “conspiracy” had connotations of secrecy and plotting, while the democratic camp’s primaries were “highly publicised.” He said that holding a democratic primary and obtaining a majority in the legislature for the opposition amounted to a “legitimate political activity.”

He added the defendants’ plan to vote down the budget was not “irrespective,” calling it a “negotiating tactic” to seek to obtain the 2019 protest movement’s “five demands.”

“Just as what happens in most legislatures in the world… it is the nature of democratic politics,” Harris said.

Outside the courthouse, over 200 citizens waited in line for hours to get tickets to the public hearing. The crowds chanted “Release political prisoners” and “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” in a show of solidarity with the democrats. The loud chants of the banned protest slogan could be heard inside the court building as police warned the crowd they may be in breach of the security law.

Unlike other open hearings, journalists and members of the public were not allowed to sit inside the courtroom where the proceeding took place, as the seats were reserved for legal representatives. Journalists and citizens were assigned 66 and 95 seats respectively in three court extensions, where the proceeding was broadcast live.

Overseas governments and rights groups condemned the detention of the pan-democratic figures and called on the Hong Kong authorities to release them immediately.

Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes. The US stands with the people of Hong Kong,” said Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State nominee for the Joe Biden administration.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.