In March Hong Kong saw two British judges resign from the city’s top court, citing the national security law and an erosion of political freedom. Local authorities issued warnings to a foreign organisation under the Beijing-enacted legislation for the very first time, and convicted an activist under the colonial-era sedition law. National security police arrested a pair for planning to “build an army,” while most court cases were put on hold owing to Covid-19.
HKFP continues its monthly round-up of security law developments amid the deadliest wave of Covid-19 since the pandemic began two years ago.
Two British judges resign
British judges Lord Robert Reed and Lord Patrick Hodge resigned from the highest court in Hong Kong on Wednesday, citing the national security law.
Lord Reed described the Hong Kong government as having “departed from values of political freedom,” saying that UK Supreme Court judges could not continue to sit in the city “without appearing to endorse” such an administration.
The pair had served as non-permanent judges on the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) under an agreement reached in 1997 between the judiciaries of the two sides. The Basic Law stipulates that the top court may invite judges from other common law jurisdictions to sit on the panel.
In January Chief Justice Andrew Cheung cited the presence of foreign judges as proof of confidence in the judicial system in Hong Kong. He expressed “regret” over the resignations on Wednesday evening, saying both judges made “valuable contributions” to the work of local courts.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam “vehemently refuted any unfounded allegations” that the resignations were related to the implementation of the national security law.
At present, the CFA has 10 overseas non-permanent judges. Four of them have so far confirmed that they would remain on the top court — Australian judges William Gummow, Anthony Murray Gleeson and Robert French, and former Canadian chief justice Beverley McLachlin.
Activist convicted under sedition law
Pro-democracy activist “Fast Beat” Tam Tak-chi was found guilty on March 2 under the colonial-era sedition law. He was convicted of 11 charges and cleared of two by Judge Stanley Chan at the District Court.
The 49-year-old had been remanded in custody since his arrest in September 2020, when he became the first person in Hong Kong to be charged under the Crimes Ordinance since the 1997 handover to China.
The legislation was last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still a British colony. It is different from the Beijing-imposed national security law, which criminalises secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts.
Tam was set to be sentenced on March 31, but the hearing was adjourned after the judiciary announced that local courts and tribunals would only handle “emergency cases” amid the deadliest wave of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic hit Hong Kong two years ago.
Hong Kong Watch
Hong Kong’s Security Bureau in mid-March demanded that UK-based watchdog Hong Kong Watch shut down its website, citing potential violations of the national security law — making it the first overseas group targeted under the Beijing-imposed legislation.
The website was likely to constitute the offence of collusion with foreign forces, the authorities said in a letter dated March 10. They told the NGO’s co-founder Benedict Rogers that the website must be taken down within 72 hours, otherwise he could face a fine of HK$100,000 and one year’s imprisonment.
Rogers said the group would not comply and would not disband. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss criticised the move as an attempt to “silence those who stand up for human rights in Hong Kong.”
Since mid-February Hong Kong Watch’s website has not been accessible in Hong Kong without using a VPN.
Martial arts duo
A 59-year-old combat coach and his 62-year-old female assistant were arrested on March 20 for allegedly breaching the colonial-era sedition law by planning to “build an army.” The police national security unit seized weapons including crossbows, swords, bows, arrows and airguns during the operation.
The pair were charged with acting with seditious intent, possessing offensive weapons with intent and possessing arms without a licence. The alleged crimes were linked to online posts that were said to have incited others to use force to overturn the regime and practise martial arts “in preparation for a future revolution.”
They were denied bail pending trial.
The former chairwoman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance Winnie Yu was remanded in custody on March 8 after allegedly violating bail conditions. The 34-year-old is among 47 democrats charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the national security law by organising and taking part in an unofficial legislative primary election in July 2020.
Following the revocation of Yu’s bail, only 13 of the defendants are currently on bail pending trial. Most of the remaining democrats have been detained for more than a year as the high-profile case awaits a trial date. Others are serving jail time for separate protest-related offences.
Their next court appearance is scheduled for April 28, when the magistrate is expected to continue handling matters linked to committing the case to the High Court, where the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
Defunct union coalition raided
On the last day of March, four former leaders of a disbanded pro-democracy union were reportedly brought in for questioning by Hong Kong’s national security police after allegedly failing to supply information about its past activities. Police also searched premises linked to now-defunct Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.