Prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, legal scholar Benny Tai and a number of ex-lawmakers are among 29 democrats who are set to plead guilty in the city’s largest national security case.

The defendants, many of whom have been detained for more than 17 months following their arrests, could face up to life imprisonment.

Benny Tai
Benny Tai in a demonstration held on January 1, 2019. Photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

The 29 will face sentencing in the High Court under the Beijing-imposed security law, after pleading guilty to their roles in an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion before Principal Magistrate Peter Law in June. Eighteen others in the case will plead not guilty.

Their pleas, entered at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts, were not previously reportable due to reporting restrictions on committal proceedings. Law lifted the ban on Thursday after a higher court overturned a decision to enforce a reporting ban in a separate subversion case earlier this month, meaning that details of proceedings can now be published.

The case against 47 well-known politicians and activists centres around an unofficial legislative primary election to select opposition candidates held in July 2020, a month after the security law came into force. The democrats stand accused of holding and taking part in the primaries in a bid to secure a majority in the legislature, with a view to abusing their powers as lawmakers – if elected – to veto budget bills, paralyse government operations and ultimately force the chief executive to resign.

In June, Law committed 29 defendants to the High Court for sentencing following their guilty pleas. They included former University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai, prominent activist Joshua Wong and ex-legislators Claudia Mo, Jeremy Tam, Alvin Yeung, Eddie Chu, Wu Chi-wai, Kwok Ka-ki and Andrew Wan, among others.

When entering their pleas before Law, former lawmaker Au Nok-hin, who was named as one of the organisers of the primaries, apologised to his co-defendants, saying he “could not guarantee the primary was legal.”

Activist Tam Tak-chi said he “agreed with the plot,” while former district councillor Henry Wong said “this fact is really fact,” referring to a 139-page-long summary of facts read out by senior prosecutor Andy Lo, which detailed the roles allegedly played by different defendants.

democrats pro democracy 35+ legco legislative council primary election 2020 september au nok hin andrew chiu benny tai
Hong Kong democrats hold a press conference to introduce the unofficial primary election. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Former district councillor Fergus Leung told the court at the time: “I know what I have done.”

Under the national security law, a “principal offender” in a subversion offence of a “grave nature” could be sentenced to life behind bars, or a fixed term imprisonment of not less than 10 years. Those who “actively participate” in the offence would be jailed between three and 10 years, while other participants shall face a fixed term imprisonment of not more than three years, short-term detention or restriction.

Prosecutors described Tai, Au, ex-district council members Andrew Chiu and Ben Chung, and activist Gordon Ng, as the organisers of the primaries. The remaining defendants were candidates in the primaries and were said to have “knowingly participated” in the alleged conspiracy.

Joshua Wong
Joshua Wong. File photo: Studio Incendo.

The Legislative Council election scheduled for September 2020 was eventually postponed on the grounds of Covid-19. Had it not been, the democrats would have carried out their scheme “to fruition,” the prosecution said.

“[T]he provision of public services essential to the operation and stability of the HKSAR and the livelihoods of the people of the HKSAR would have been gravely affected,” Lo told the court in June.

It remains unclear what level of penalty the High Court may impose on those democrats who are set to plead guilty. The court has yet to set a sentencing date for them.

The 18 remaining defendants, including ex-Stand News journalist Gwyneth Ho, former legislators Lam Cheuk-ting, Leung Kwok-hung, Helena Wong and Ray Chan and other activists, are set to stand trial in the High Court after they pleaded not guilty before Law.

Eleven were among the 13 of the 47 defendants who managed to get bail pending trial, despite the strict threshold in national security cases.

High Court
High Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

There will be no jury in the high-profile trial, after Secretary for Justice Paul Lam issued an order citing “involvement of foreign elements” in the case as a reason to depart from the common law tradition of jury trial. Lam also cited concerns over the “personal safety of jurors and their family members” and a “risk of perverting the course of justice if the trial is conducted with a jury.” His order did not mention a trial date.

The 47 democrats’ case was first brought to court in March last year, when the defendants sat through a marathon four-day bail hearing. Most of them were denied bail on national security grounds, and have been held in custody since then. In April, High Court judge Esther Toh expressed concerns over “the long delay in the proceeding being brought to trial” in a written judgement explaining why she refused to grant bail to defendant Gary Fan.

The Law Society of Hong Kong also raised concerns over the delay in bringing defendants in custody to trial in cases relating to national security and public order in its meeting with the justice minister this month. The professional body representing solicitors in the city said it was assured that the Department of Justice would “take all necessary steps to address any unreasonable delay.”

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.