Hong Kong’s Department of Justice has refused to comment further on whether it has a double standard on comments about ongoing trials, after it was challenged over a senior Beijing official who called for “severe punishment” of three pro-democracy figures on trial under the national security law.
The department had previously criticised other comments about ongoing legal proceedings as “inappropriate.”
HKFP submitted two rounds of enquiries to the DoJ this week about the remarks by the director of China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office Xia Baolong in an interview published on Monday.
Xia told Bauhinia Magazine that “extremely vile” individuals such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai, ex-law professor Benny Tai and jailed activist Joshua Wong “should be severely punished in accordance with the law.”
“[We] should not only not allow them to have any power in the SAR, we must also punish them severely for their illegal acts,” Xia said.
The trio are among about 100 people arrested under the national security law since its enactment last June 30. Tai and Wong stand accused of conspiracy to commit subversion along with 45 other democrats, while Lai is being prosecuted for alleged collusion with foreign forces.
The sweeping legislation also criminalises secession and terrorist acts and provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
HKFP asked the justice department whether it was appropriate for a top Beijing representative to comment on cases which were underway.
A spokesman for the DoJ said on Tuesday it was not appropriate for anyone to comment further as the legal proceedings were ongoing. He said citizens have the right to express their views or engage in discussions on court decisions “within the boundary permitted by the law.”
“It should be noted that Mr Xia Baolong, when making his comments, mentioned ‘in accordance with the law’,” the DoJ said in its emailed reply.
Asked to clarify the significance of Xia mentioning “in accordance with the law” and whether a person could say the defendants should be released or acquitted “in accordance with the law,” a DoJ press officer said they would not comment further.
The DoJ also did not respond to HKFP‘s question on whether there was a double standard for the department to criticise open demands for the withdrawal of charges and for the immediate release of the defendants, but not to criticise Xia’s call for “severe punishment.”
On Tuesday, the department said no one should interfere with prosecutorial decisions, following calls to drop charges against the 47 democrats facing trial for subversion in connection with an unofficial legislative primary election last July. Foreign governments and rights groups were among those who urged that the group be freed.
“Any open demand for immediate release of the defendants, in the course of legal proceedings, is considered a disrespect of our judicial and legal systems,” the DoJ said.
“It also undermines the rule of law and is seen as an attempt to meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs which are internal affairs of the People’s Republic of China.”
Barrister and law professor Simon Young of the University of Hong Kong told HKFP that Xia was “careful” to mention “in accordance with the law” when he made his remarks. The associate dean of the HKU law faculty said such qualified language could help “soften the likelihood of any improper influence.”
Young said that if the defendants were acquitted or punished leniently “in accordance with the law,” those results would still be consistent with Xia’s statement.
“[T]hus the statement strictly speaking cannot be seen as unduly interfering with the process. Given his position of course, it’s problematic and would carry more influence than the average person,” he said.
But the court should not and would not pay attention to such remarks, Young said, adding judges were also less likely to be influenced by “the words of outsiders.”