Three former Hong Kong lawmakers who have pleaded guilty to a subversion charge have asked a local court to handle their mitigation pleas and sentencing “as soon as possible” before their 18 co-defendants stand trial in the city’s largest national security case.
It came as the trio’s lawyer said his clients have been “anxious” while spending more than 18 months in detention before the high-profile case involving 47 pro-democracy figures could move to trial.
Ex-Civic Party legislators Alvin Yeung, Jeremy Tam and Kwok Ka-ki appeared before a three-judge panel in the High Court on Monday along with well-known activists Joshua Wong and “Fast Beat” Tam Tak-chi to discuss matters linked to their sentencing.
They are among 29 prominent politicians and activists who have pleaded guilty to playing a part in an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion, an offence under the Beijing-enacted security legislation that came into force on June 30, 2020.
The allegation evolves around unofficial primary polls held in July 2020 to select opposition candidates for an upcoming Legislative Council election, which aimed to help the pro-democracy camp seize more than half of the seats in the legislature.
The primaries were said to be part of a conspiracy to allow the democrats to abuse their powers as lawmakers to veto budget bills, paralyse government operations and ultimately force the chief executive to resign if they were elected.
On Monday, Senior Counsel Edwin Choy told designated national security judges Andrew Chan, Wilson Chan and Johnny Chan that the three ex-Civic Party politicians wanted to face sentencing prior to the trial of their 18 co-defendants who denied the charge.
Judges should “proactively seek ways to bring national security law-related matters to trial expeditiously,” Choy said citing a Court of Final Appeal judgement from December last year. There should be “proactive case management and a monitoring of progress” by the court in cases where the defendant was held in pre-trial custody for lengthy periods, the senior counsel quoted the top court’s ruling.
“[M]y clients have been incarcerated for quite a long time, they have been anxious, [with] the anxiety of waiting,” Choy said, adding the three ex-lawmakers wanted their mitigation and sentencing to be scheduled “as soon as possible before the trial.”
The 47 democrats were first brought to court in March last year, when they sat through a four-day marathon bail hearing . Most of them have been held in custody since then after being denied bail on national security grounds. Only 13 of them are currently out on bail.
It took almost one year for a magistrate to commit the case to the High Court, where the subversion offence could warrant up to life imprisonment.
Former Civic Party leader Yeung was said to have appealed to the international community to intervene or exert political pressure on China and Hong Kong in the name of safeguarding the human rights situation in the course of the primaries.
Tam, on the other hand, was described by the prosecution as having lobbied for “firm insurgence against the authorities” by taking part in the scheme, to which he also demonstrated a “persistent commitment.”
The prosecution said Kwok encouraged people to vote in the unofficial polls and made “unfounded assertions against the national security law,” which they saw as affirming his commitment to and endorsement of the scheme.
Representing ex-student leader Joshua Wong, lawyer Jonathan Man on Monday said his client was “neutral” as to whether he wanted to be sentenced before or after the trial. Wong was said to have lobbied to bring about a political crisis with the intention of strengthening the “international battlefront.” The activist could not give his preference, Man said, because “he has no idea when the trial is going to be.”
Activist Tam Tak-chi was also “neutral” about the sentencing arrangement. Prosecutors described him as having demonstrated willingness and readiness to engage in physical confrontation once elected as a lawmaker.
His representative, barrister Pauline Leung, originally told the court that the former online radio host preferred facing sentencing after his 18 co-defendants are tried. But Tam quickly gave an “updated instruction” in court and said he did not have a preference.
Last Friday, lead prosecutor Andy Lo told the court that in a case with more than one defendant, it would be “proper” for the court to impose sentencing after their co-defendants’ trial had ended. This would allow the court to consider the criminality of each defendant, he said.
Justice Wilson Chan on Monday asked the prosecutors if it was possible to conduct sentencing hearings both before and after the trial in accordance with the preferences of the democrats accused.
In response, Lo repeated the “general principle” of meting out sentences after trial. His submission was interjected by Justice Andrew Chan, who stopped the prosecutor from elaborating on the reasons for adhering to usual arrangements.
“We all know the reason. Go back and do some research,” Justice Andrew Chan told Lo.
Aside from the five democrats in court for their case management hearing, some of their co-defendants were also present, including Gary Fan, Roy Tam, Frankie Fung, Carol Ng and Tiffany Yuen.
They waved to the public gallery as they were escorted away after the hearing ended, with Joshua Wong shouting: “Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, everyone!”
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.
It remains unclear what level of penalty the High Court may impose on the democrats.
A trial date for the high-profile case has not been fixed yet, but Secretary for Justice Paul Lam has ordered the 18 democrats to be tried without a jury. He cited the alleged “involvement of foreign elements” as a reason to depart from the common law tradition, as well as 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.