The high-profile national security case involving a number pro-democracy figures has largely been transferred to Hong Kong’s High Court, with 44 defendants committed to the Court of First Instance for trial or sentencing. Dozens of defendants have spent more than a year behind bars as committal proceedings were repeatedly adjourned.

47 democrats Wong Ji-yuet
Defendant Wong Ji-yuet. She was among 27 democrats committed to the High Court on June 6, 2022. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Principal Magistrate Peter Law on Monday moved 27 democrats to the High Court, where they could face up to life in prison over an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion in connection with an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020. Committal proceedings began last July and were adjourned numerous times in the months since.

The accused included former law professor Benny Tai, prominent activist Joshua Wong, former lawmakers, ex-district councillors and other activists, who organised and participated in the primary with the aim of gaining a controlling majority in the legislature.

47 democrats Hendrick Lui
Defendant Hendrick Lui photographed on June 1, 2022. He was among the 27 democrats committed to the High Court on June 6, 2022. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

They were said to have intended to abuse their powers as lawmakers, if elected, to indiscriminately veto budgets, paralyse government operations and ultimately force the chief executive to resign.

Law was set to commit 30 defendants on Monday, but the designated national security judge has yet to transfer former district councillor Tiffany Yuen, Carol Ng who chaired the defunct Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, and activist Gordon Ng, better known under the pseudonym “Lee Bak Lou” on popular forum LIHKG.

Seventeen democrats were committed last week. The court originally set aside last Wednesday and Thursday to handle the final stages of the transfer, but the hearing was extended to Monday after more time was needed to complete the procedure.

  • 47 arrested democrats
  • 47 arrested democrats
  • 47 democrats (divided3)'
  • 47 arrested democrats

It took the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts close to 11 months to officially hand over the subversion case to the Court of First Instance of the High Court.

Reporting restrictions surrounding committal proceedings – whereby a magistrate determines whether there is enough evidence for case to be transferred to the Court of First Instance of the High Court for trial or sentence – 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.

Subversion is outlawed under the Beijing-imposed national security law which came into force on June 30, 2020. The sweeping legislation also targets secession, foreign collusion and terrorist acts. As of late May, 186 persons have been arrested for committing acts and engaging in activities endangering national security, according to the Security Bureau. 

47 democrats Helena Wong
Defendant and former legislator Helena Wong, who was committed to the High Court on June 1, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The 47 democrats’ case was first heard in March last year, when the defendants sat through a marathon four-day bail hearing. At present, only 13 democrats are on bail awaiting trial, while many have been detained for more than 15 months. Some are also serving prison terms for offences linked to the 2019 protests against the extradition bill.

Before Monday’s hearing began, the defendants waved to family and friends in the courtroom as they were led into the dock by corrections officers and police officers. Some mouthed words, while others communicated with people in the public gallery with hand gestures.

Court attendees included former legislator Shiu Ka-chun and activist Raphael Wong, who was recently released from prison after serving a sentence over offences linked to the unrest in 2019.

Shiu Ka-chun
Former lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun photographed at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on June 1, 2022. He attended the committal hearing of the 47 democrats. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Senior counsels Gladys Li and Nigel Kat and barristers Margaret Ng and David Ma were among the defendants’ legal representatives. Some defendants appeared in person, including Gordon Ng and activist Ventus Lau, who helped organise rallies during the extradition bill protests.

The case will resume on Tuesday morning when Law is set to handle the transfer of Tiffany Yuen, Carol Ng and Gordon Ng. The court will also hear legal disputes arising from the case on July 25, which will not affect the result of the committal proceedings.

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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.