The high-profile national security case involving 47 Hong Kong pro-democracy figures has been adjourned to late April, as the judiciary announced that courts will close for more than a month owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A total of 35 democrats appeared at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on Friday for a return day, when Principal Magistrate Peter Law was scheduled to handle procedures for committing the case to the High Court, where the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
The defendants – including former law professor Benny Tai, prominent activist Joshua Wong and former lawmakers Lam Cheuk-ting, Leung Kwok-hung and Alvin Yeung – stand accused of taking part in a conspiracy to commit subversion by organising and participating in an unofficial legislative primary election held in 2020.
The group was said to have an aim to seize majority in the legislature and “abuse” their powers – if elected as lawmakers – to veto budget bills, paralyse government operations and ultimately force the city’s leader to resign.
Noting the absence of 12 defendants, who were described as “unfit” to show up in person, Law decided to adjourn the case to April 28 for mention.
Friday’s hearing marked a year since all 47 democrats were remanded in custody following a marathon bail hearing that lasted four days. Chief Magistrate Victor So extended bail to 15 defendants at the time, but his decision was immediately challenged by the prosecutors.
Only 14 democrats are currently on bail pending trial. The remaining 33 have lost their freedom, most for more than a year, as they await trial. Some are serving time in prison for protest-related offences.
Hong Kong’s prisons have failed to escape the city’s fifth and worst wave of Covid-19, with around 1,000 inmates testing positive for the virus as of Thursday. The number accounts for roughly 12 per cent of the entire prison population.
The Correctional Services Department (CSD) reported on Thursday that the infected prisoners were mainly locked up at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, Stanley Prison, Lo Wu Correctional Institution and Pik Uk Correctional Institution. All types of visitations – including legal visits – were suspended by the CSD until March 20.
The remanded democrats’ families and friends have not been able to visit since early February, when Hong Kong began to record high numbers of daily infections.
One democrat was heard shouting from the dock to ask his family for more envelopes, as the CSD raised the number of letters a person in custody could send from one to three per week while visits are suspended.
“There is no way to connect with the outside world,” one of the defendants said.
Friday’s adjournment came hours before the judiciary confirmed in a statement “that in light of the latest public health situation and related developments, all hearings of the courts and tribunals originally scheduled between March 7 and April 11, 2022, will generally be adjourned.” During the suspension, only emergency cases would be handled, including applications for bail.
HKFP has reached out to the Judiciary for confirmation.
Bail conditions adjusted
On Friday, 10 defendants asked the court to allow them to report to the police less frequently, citing concerns over the soaring number of Covid-19 cases in the city. Regularly returning to a police station was one of the requirements set out in a list of conditions when bail was granted. Law approved the applications.
According to the court diary on Friday, Law resumed the title of principal magistrate after serving as the acting chief magistrate for months while So was on sick leave. The chief magistrate reportedly suffered from heart problems and was hospitalised last October. Citing sources, local media reported on Monday that So has returned to work.
A spokesperson of the Judiciary confirmed with HKFP on Friday that Chief Magistrate Victor So returned to work on Monday.
“Victor So’s heart has recovered, congratulations!” activist Tam Tak -chi shouted before the hearing.
Correction 10.03.2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the next court date for the 47 democrats as April 27. It should be April 28.