Hong Kong’s high-profile subversion case involving 47 leading democrats has been adjourned to June, days after a court judgement revealed at least 11 of them would plead guilty to the offence under the Beijing-imposed national security law.
Most of the group have been held in custody since their arrest in February last year and their cases have been repeatedly adjourned. Only 13 of them have been granted bail.
The democrats, accused of conspiracy to commit subversion, appeared before Principal Magistrate Peter Law on Thursday. The court is handling proceedings to commit them to the High Court, where the maximum penalty is life in prison.
Among those in the dock were former law professor Benny Tai, activist Joshua Wong, former lawmakers Lam Cheuk-ting, Claudia Mo and Alvin Yeung, journalist-turned activist Gwyneth Ho and other democrats. Three defendants did not attend the hearing at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts, but the court did not state the reason for their absence.
The case involves an unofficial primary election held in July 2020, a month after the security law came into force, to select the best opposition candidates to contest an upcoming Legislative Council election. The democrats were said to have organised or taken part in it with a view to abusing their powers as lawmakers – if elected – to veto the budget, paralyse government operations and eventually force the chief executive to step down.
High Court Judge Esther Toh called on the lower court to give the democrats a speedy trial in a bail judgement handed down on Tuesday. Toh, one of the city’s designated national security judges, said she was concerned that the case has seen a “long delay” with most defendants being held in custody pending trial.
In the same judgement, Toh revealed that 11 defendants had signalled they intend to plead guilty to the charge when the case is officially committed to the High Court.
Following Toh’s judgement, the principal magistrate on Thursday told the defendants to appear in court again on June 1 to 2 to continue with the committal proceedings.
Unlike previous hearings, the courtroom was relatively quiet when the democrats were escorted to the dock by corrections officers. Their family and friends, who took up most seats in the public gallery, only waved at the group and made hand gestures.
Court attendees have been less vocal since six people were arrested earlier this month under the colonial-era sedition law for allegedly causing nuisance during a hearing. One of the arrestees, citizen journalist Siew Yun-long – better known as Siu Wan – also attended Thursday’s hearing.
Reporting restrictions surrounding committal proceedings mean that written and broadcast reports are limited to including only the name of the defendants, magistrates, and lawyers, the alleged offence, the court’s decision, whether legal aid was granted, and future court dates.