The 47 democrats facing subversion charges due to their participation in a primary election in July 2020 should be given a speedy trial, according to one of Hong Kong’s handpicked national security judges. Most of the defendants have been in custody awaiting trial for more than a year.

Judge Esther Toh expressed her concern over “the long delay in the proceeding being brought to trial” in a written judgement released on Tuesday, in which she explained her decision to reject the bail application of former lawmaker Gary Fan, one of the 47 activists.

Designated national security judge Esther Toh said she is concerned of the long delay in the proceeding being brought to trial. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“There should be no reason to hold up the rest of the Defendants in their progress to a speedy trial,” Toh said.

Toh cited the national security law, saying cases should be handled in “a fair and timely manner,” noting some defendants, including Fan, have been in pre-trial custody for more than a year.

Toh said the court should set dates “which are set in concrete” for different procedures, such as reaching an agreement on a summary of facts, committal proceedings and preliminary inquiries. She added it was the responsibility of the chief magistrate to impose those deadlines in a “proactive” manner.

Bail denied

Fan applied for bail for the second time on April 14, citing the deteriorating health of his family members. His lawyer said Fan’s main priority would be his family, and that the possibility of him committing acts endangering national security was “virtually non-existent.” His application was denied last Tuesday.

Gary Fan. File photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

In her judgement, Toh cited the prosecution, saying that Fan maintained a Patreon site that actively posted content about Hong Kong’s fight for democracy. Toh said the court was still of the opinion that Fan would continue to commit acts endangering national security.

The 47 pro-democracy figures were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion by organising and participating in an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020. They were arrested in January and remanded in custody last March after a marathon four-day hearing. At present, 13 of the defendants are on bail awaiting trial.

In the judgement, Toh said she had been informed that 11 of the defendants had indicated their intention to plead guilty.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

Almond Li

Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.