A centrist political party has appealed to Hong Kong authorities to reverse its order for the 47 democrats’ national security case to be tried without a jury, calling such an arrangement “inappropriate.”

Lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In a letter addressed to Secretary for Justice Paul Lam on Thursday, the chairperson of the Third Side, Tik Chi-yuen, said the high-profile case is a matter that the Hong Kong public pays close attention to. Tik is the only lawmaker in Hong Kong’s 90-seat legislature who is not of the pro-Beijing or pro-establishment camp.

“The [primary election] involving the 47 people… engaged the public to cast a vote. Therefore, the participation of the public [should be] part of the characteristics of this case.”

The presence of a jury, he said, “is to introduce the public’s point of view and analysis.”

Authorities recently issued a notice – seen by HKFP – ordering a non-jury trial for the high-profile case, citing the “involvement of foreign elements” as a reason. The notice also mentioned 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.”

47 democrats’ case defendant Ray Chan photographed on June 1, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Tik added that the trial should begin as soon as possible. Most of those implicated have been held in custody pending trial since March last year. “Soon, the defendants will have been detained for almost two years. This is unfair to them.”

Three designated national security judges will preside over the case.

The subversion case against 47 well-known politicians and activists centres around an unofficial legislative primary election in July 2020, a month after the security law came into force. The democrats stand accused of 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.

News reports of the case have been brief due to reporting restrictions that significantly limited what media could publish. But the restrictions for the case were lifted on Thursday following a landmark ruling.

The move meant that journalists are now allowed to report details of past court proceedings in the case, including their pleas. Twenty-nine democrats, including prominent activist Joshua Wong and legal scholar Benny Tai, are set to plead guilty. The remaining 18 are set to plead not guilty.

They could face up to life imprisonment if convicted.

Common law legal system

The 47 democrats case is the second national security case to be handled without a jury in Hong Kong, after Tong Ying-kit – the first person sentenced under the security law – lost a judicial challenge against the non-jury arrangement.

Trial by jury is a key feature of Hong Kong’s common law legal system. However, the national security law, imposed by Beijing in June 2020, allows cases under the legislation to be tried at the High Court by a panel of designated judges instead of a jury.

High Court. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The practice was flagged by a UN human rights committee last month as “very concerning,” with one expert saying it compromised judicial independence and the prospects of a fair trial.

A day after it was reported that the 47 democrats case would be tried by designated national security judges, local media reported that the national security trial for Jimmy Lai – the founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily – would also proceed without a jury.

The media mogul stands accused of conspiring to commit collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security, and to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications under the sedition law.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.