In August, a Hong Kong court ruled that reporting restrictions on committal proceedings must be removed upon the request of the accused, lifting the lid on national security cases involving activist Chow Hang-tung and the 47 democrats. Media tycoon Jimmy Lai is set to plead not guilty to a charge of conspiring to commit collusion with foreign forces. Former lawmaker and activist Albert Ho was granted bail. Four under 18s became the city’s first minors to be convicted under the national security law. Police arrested four civil servants for making or sharing “seditious” posts on social media.
HKFP continues its monthly roundup of developments.
Reporting restrictions lifted
Hong Kong’s High Court made a landmark ruling last month to lift reporting restrictions on committal proceedings for criminal cases, including national security cases, should the defendant request the limitations be removed.
The decision came after pro-democracy activist Chow Hang-tung, who is also a barrister, filed a judicial review in May against Principal Magistrate Peter Law’s decision in April to reject her request to lift reporting restrictions.
High Court judge Alex Lee wrote in his judgement that a magistrate must grant the application if there is one. Lee said even if magistrates had the discretion, they should not refuse to lift restrictions “unless such refusal is ‘strictly necessary’ in the interests of justice.”
The ruling means the details of the proceedings of Chow’s preliminary inquiry and the national security cases against the 47 democrats can now be reported.
Without restrictions being lifted, written and broadcast reports about committal proceedings – whereby a magistrate determines whether there is enough evidence for a case to be transferred to a higher court for trial or sentence – 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.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai, who owned the defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is set to plead not guilty and stand trial in a national security case, while six other former executives are set to plead guilty.
The 74-year-old Lai faces four charges: two counts of conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries or external elements, one count of colluding with foreign powers, and one count of conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.
Local media reported that the Judiciary ordered Lai’s trial to be conducted without a jury, breaking from a century-old tradition under the common law legal system.
The city’s first national security case against Tong Ying-kit was also tried without a jury. He had sought to challenge the arrangement, but the High Court said a defendant did not have a general or constitutional right to a jury trial. Tong was eventually sentenced to nine years in jail by a panel of three judges for inciting secession and engaging in terrorist activities.
The media tycoon also lost a legal bid to stop national security police from searching his phones, which he said contained protected journalistic materials. A judge said a national security search warrant allowed police to seize and inspect “specific evidence,” including journalistic material.
The high-profile national security trial of 47 pro-democracy activists, who face subversion charges for organising and taking part in an unofficial primary election back in 2020, will also proceed without a jury.
An order signed by Secretary for Justice Paul Lam stated “involvement of foreign elements” in the case as one of the reasons for a non-jury trial. It also cited 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”.
Among the 47 defendants, 29 are set to plead guilty, including legal scholar Benny Tai and prominent activist Joshua Wong. Eighteen others are set to plead not guilty. Their pleas were entered back in June, but were previously not reportable due to reporting restrictions on committal proceedings.
Hong Kong Alliance
In light of the ruling on reporting restrictions, the inquiry into the strength of the national security case against Chow Hang-tung will be held in open court, with the public allowed to attend and journalists allowed to report on proceedings.
Chow, the ex-vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China – along with the group, and two of its former leaders Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho – has been charged under the Beijing-imposed national security law over alleged incitement to subversion.
Ho, a former lawmaker, was granted bail this month while facing that charge. He had been held in remand since May last year.
Chow, meanwhile, stands accused of not complying with a national security police request to submit information in another case, along with two more ex-committee members of the Alliance. The members and the group were branded as “foreign agents” and asked to provide information, including activities and finances.
The trial has progressed slowly, as the defence demanded the prosecution disclose some redacted case materials, including which foreign organisations or countries the Alliance was allegedly working for.
First conviction of minors
Six members of Hong Kong political group Returning Valiant pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiring to incite subversion. The case marked the first time that minors have been convicted under the national security law – with four of the defendants aged under 18. One remaining defendant is set to enter his plea next Friday.
The seven were accused of using street booths, press conferences and social media to spread seditious messages and incite others to subvert state power between January and May last year. The prosecution also alleged the group stressed the importance of an “armed uprising” during their news conferences or social media livestreams.
The six who pleaded guilty will be sentenced on September 9.
At least four government employees were arrested in August over alleged seditious online posts.
Two were reportedly administrators of the Civil Servants Secrets Facebook page, which posted content – sometimes of a critical nature – relating to government policies. People could make submissions to reveal the internal operations of government departments or air grievances about the rules and regulations imposed on civil servants.
The pair were accused of publishing posts on the social media group “to disseminate seditious messages that promote feelings of ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong,” a police statement read.
The arrests prompted other “secrets” pages to shut down, too. The city’s security chief Chris Tang later said it was fine for people to criticise the government if they did so to try and make the administration perform better. But if their intention was “to provoke hatred among others, causing people of different classes to point their fingers at each other, attack each other or even use violence, [they] might have breached the law,” he said.
Separately, authorities also apprehended two government workers for allegedly making anti-government posts online and sharing “seditious” posts advocating Hong Kong independence and violence on Facebook and discussion forum LIHKG. One was remanded in custody.
‘Hong Kong Parliament’
The Security Bureau said a group of overseas activists may have violated the national security law for launching a committee to form a “Hong Kong Parliament” in exile. Businessman and commentator Elmer Yuen, journalist Victor Ho, and ex-lawmaker-elect Baggio Leung were named and accused of “contravening the offence of subversion” by the bureau.
The group, based overseas, said it aimed to hold the first election of the parliament in late 2023. The parliament “represents, solidifies and revives Hong Kong people’s rights of self-determination,” the group said.
Yuen’s daughter-in-law, pro-Beijing lawmaker Eunice Yung, took out a newspaper advertisement to disown Yuen, two days after the government’s accusation.
A film festival cancelled the screening of an award-winning short movie after censors demanded the removal of a scene depicting a protest site during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
The shot, which lasted less than a second, “reconstructed the illegal occupation movement,” the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration told the film producers. The scene showed canopies and placards reading “Don’t forget the original intention.” It also showed a scroll partially flipped up by the wind with a yellow umbrella and the characters “I want,” an apparent allusion to banners hung around protest camps during the 2014 civil disobedience campaign that read “I want universal suffrage.”
The79-day-long Umbrella Movement was originally conceived as “Occupy Central.” Thousands occupied roads around the legislature and in two other key districts following a student sit-in. Leading figures of the largely peaceful movement were jailed in the years following the police clearance.
As of August 26, a total of 215 people had been arrested for national security-related offences since the law came into force on June 30, 2020, according to figures provided by the Security Bureau. So far, 128 individuals and five companies have been charged, and 17 people have been convicted.
The figures cover both people arrested under the national security law and those held under a separate law covering sedition. The Security Bureau did not provide separate figures for sedition offences, despite having done so previously.