Hong Kong pro-democracy politicians Au Nok-hin and Ben Chung, who are among 29 people set to plead guilty in the city’s largest national security case, have asked the court to adjourn discussion of their case after their lawyer said more time was needed to seek instructions from the pair.

Au Nok-hin
Au Nok-hin. File photo: Legislative Council, via Flickr.

Former lawmaker Au and ex-district councillor Chung appeared before a three-judge panel in the High Court on Thursday at a hearing to discuss case management. The defence and prosecution were expected to confer with designated national security judges Andrew Chan, Wilson Chan and Johnny Chan on how to proceed with the case against the pair, who pleaded guilty before a magistrate in June over their roles in an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion.

The allegation centres on unofficial primary elections held in July 2020 to select opposition candidates for an upcoming Legislative Council election involving 47 well-known Hong Kong pro-democracy figures.

The primaries, which aimed to help the pro-democracy camp secure a majority in the legislature, were said to be part of a conspiracy to allow the democrats to abuse their powers as lawmakers – if elected – to veto budget bills, paralyse government operations and ultimately force the chief executive to resign.

Representing both Au and Chung, barrister Valerie Chan told the court on Thursday that she wanted to make a joint application with the prosecution, led by senior prosecutor Andy Lo, to postpone the hearing.

The lawyer did not initially say why an adjournment was needed. Asked by Justice Andrew Chan to elaborate, barrister Valerie Chan said the legal team needed further time to take instructions from their clients.

High Court
High Court. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The court adjourned the hearing to September 28.

Au and Chung were the first batch of the 47 democrats to appear before the High Court’s three-judge panel. It took almost a year for a lower court to commit 18 democrats for trial and 29 for sentencing. Most of the accused have already been detained for 18 months, with only 13 defendants currently on bail.

Those who pleaded guilty before Principal Magistrate Peter Law in the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts in June are expected to confirm their guilty pleas before the three judges. They could face up to life imprisonment, but it remains unclear what level of penalty the High Court may impose.

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 for 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.

The prosecution has described Au as one of the co-organisers of the primaries and the “main coordinator” of six election forums which “promoted their subversive agenda.” The former legislator was also said to have called for donations to fund the unofficial primaries, asking the public to give amounts under HK$1,000 to “circumvent” election laws.

Similarly, Chung was named a co-organiser with an “indispensable involvement” in the scheme, including handling the treasury, logistics and publicity for the primaries. Prosecutors pointed to his position as the vice-convenor of the now-defunct political group Power for Democracy, which helped implement the unofficial primaries.

Ben Chung
Ben Chung. File photo: Ben Chung, via Facebook.

The ex-chairman of the Sai Kung District Council was also said to have provided his office as one of the polling stations for the primaries.

Apart from Au and Chung, seven other defendants also attended the hearing on Thursday. They were former lawmakers Claudia Mo and Gary Fan, ex-district councillors Tiffany Yuen and Roy Tam, Carol Ng who used to chair the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and activists Gordon Ng and Frankie Fung.

The democrats waved to family, friends and supporters in the public gallery when they were escorted into the dock. Among those in the public seats were consulate staff and Senior Counsel Gladys Li and barrister Margaret Ng, who represent other defendants in the case.

A series of hearings was scheduled for Friday and next week for the High Court to discuss case management issues with some of the defendants who are set to plead guilty. Legal scholar Benny Tai will appear in the High Court later this month, while another batch of defendants will be brought to court in November.

No date has been set for the 18 defendants who deny the subversion charge. But Secretary for Justice Paul Lam ordered last month that they will be tried without a jury, citing the alleged “involvement of foreign elements” in the case as a reason to depart from the common law tradition of trial by jury. He also mentioned concerns over “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.”

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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.