A Hong Kong court has adjourned matters linked to the high-profile subversion case involving 47 democrats to Friday, after some defendants did not show up to a hearing owing to the spread of Covid-19 in prison.

Acting Chief Magistrate Peter Law was scheduled to handle procedures relating to nine defendants in the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on Monday, exactly one year since the pro-democracy figures were officially charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the national security law. Fourteen are currently on bail pending trial, while the rest remain in custody.

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

The case centres around an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020. The group stands accused of taking part in a scheme with a view to secure a majority in the legislature to veto government budgets, paralyse government operations and ultimately force the chief executive to step down.

The nine included former law professor Benny Tai, former lawmakers Jeremy Tam, Wu Chi-wai, Andrew Wan, Kwok Ka-ki, Alvin Yeung and Au Nok-hin and ex-district councillors Andrew Wan and Ben Chung.

Chung was absent as the Correctional Services Department (CSD) deemed him “unfit” to be escorted to the court in light of the Covid-19 outbreak in prison.

Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre.
Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

A total of 202 inmates contracted Covid-19 at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre and Stanley Prison, while 135 tested preliminary-positive for the virus, according to a CSD statement issued last Thursday.

Around 15 co-defendants of the nine democrats appeared in court to sit in the hearing. However, some also failed to show up due to the pandemic situation in prison, such as journalist-turned-activist Gwyneth Ho.

Those brought into the dock waved and nodded at their family members and friends who have been unable to visit them in detention after the CSD halted social visits earlier this month, as the city struggled to curb the fifth wave of infections. The suspension on social visits was extended last week until this Sunday.

Former district councillor Roy Tam said before the hearing that he had not been able to get a haircut while in custody, saying he has been using a shaver to trim his hair.

On Sunday, Hong Kong reported 26,026 new Covid-19 cases and 83 deaths in public hospitals, breaking yet another daily record.

Parents and their children waited outside a Hong Kong public hospital on February 17, 2022.
Parents and their children waited outside a Hong Kong public hospital on February 17, 2022. The city’s public health system was under strain as the city braced the fifth Omicron wave. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.

Under current regulations, legal representatives may visit their clients in custody if the former have received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine and are able to show a negative result from self-brought rapid antigen test. Alternatively, they can provide proof of a negative result from a PCR test conducted within 48 hours before the visit.

After hearing submissions from the prosecution, led by Acting Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions Andy Lo, and defence counsels including barristers Margaret Ng and James McGowan, Law decided to adjourn the hearing to Friday, which was set aside for the court to handle procedures for transferring the case to the High Court, where the maximum sentence is life in prison.

No clapping and chanting of slogans

On Monday, the Judiciary played a new recording before the hearing warning against shouting, clapping, chanting slogans and displaying placards in the courtroom. It also warned against intimidation to court users such as legal representatives by using “abusive language” and stalking.

Chan Po-ying 47 democrats West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts
Chan Po-ying of the League of Social Democrats stages a brief protest outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts before a hearing related to the 47 democrats’ subversion case on February 28, 2022. Photo: League of Social Democrats.

The judge has the power to give directions on court attendees’ attire and behaviour, the recording stated, and those who do not comply with the rules would be expelled from the courtroom or the courthouse. The Judiciary may also refer a case to the police for follow-up.

Outside the courthouse, the League of Social Democrats (LSD) staged a brief protest before the morning hearing. The LSD leader Chan Po-ying, who is also the wife of one of the defendants “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, held a banner that read: “The primary election was not a crime. One year anniversary of imprisonment before trial.”

She accused the authorities of making arrests and putting people behind bars “arbitrarily,” and called the CSD’s decision to suspend social visits a “humanitarian crisis.”

Chan Po-ying 47 democrats West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts
Police officers inspect Chan Po-ying’s bag and jot down her identification document number when she stages a brief protest outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on February 28, 2022 before a hearing on the 47 democrats’ subversion case. Photo: League of Social Democrats.

“I remember very clearly that on February 28 last year, I sent Long Hair to the Ngau Tau Kok Police Station and said goodbye to him. Since then, I haven’t had a chance to see him without a glass panel between us. I don’t know when we will be able to be reunited,” Chan said.

The LSD leader added: “These 47 people have lost one year of freedom… there is still no trial. Therefore on this one-year anniversary, we want to express our objection and discontent.”

Police officers on standby at the courthouse later inspected Chan’s bag and asked her to provide her identification document’s number. They did not hand out any warnings.

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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.