A Hong Kong activist charged with conspiracy to commit subversion has changed his plea to guilty in the city’s largest national security case against 47 pro-democracy figures.

Former district councillor Ng Kin-wai told a three-judge panel at the High Court on Thursday that he would plead guilty, after he originally indicated he would deny the charge in a committal proceeding handled by a lower court in June.

Ng Kin-wai. File photo: Ng Kin-wai, via Facebook.

Ng’s representative Yantl Sze, said her client read the summary of facts prepared by the prosecution and agreed to the allegations on October 6. She also confirmed that his plea was “unequivocal.”

The former Yuen Long District Council member is among 47 well-known politicians and activists prosecuted over their involvement in unofficial legislative primary polls held in July 2020. The primaries aimed to help the pro-democracy camp select candidates for an upcoming Legislative Council election and secure a majority in the legislature.

The democrats were said to have intended, had they secured a majority, to abuse their powers as lawmakers to veto budget bills, paralyse government operations and eventually force the chief executive to resign.

Authorities later postponed the election, citing the Covid pandemic. It was eventually held under a revamped “patriots only” political system ordered by Beijing, which made it much harder for pro-democracy candidates to stand.

30 guilty pleas

Ng’s plea on Thursday brought the total number of democrats who have pleaded guilty to 30, including former law professor Benny Tai and prominent activist Joshua Wong. The remaining 17 defendants are expected to stand trial for 55 days following the Lunar New Year in late January next year, the court revealed on Tuesday.

The High Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Ng was “neutral” to his mitigation and sentencing timeline, Sze said. His co-defendants, ex-chairwoman of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions Carol Ng and former district councillor Roy Tam, on the other hand, said they wanted to be sentenced before the trial of the 17 democrats.

It would be better to handle the sentencing before the trial, barrister David Ma said on behalf of Tam. Those who pleaded guilty would not be given an opportunity to cross-examine any witness or make submissions during the trial, he said.

Representing the former unionist, Senior Counsel Gladys Li told the three designated national security judges that her client did not agree with some of the language used in the prosecution’s case. It would not affect her guilty plea, but the “nitty-gritty is what is important,” the lawyer said.

“[We just want to] ensure we are not being asked to admit matters relating to other defendants,” Li said.

Carol Ng. File photo: Labour Party.

Carol Ng may also join an application to argue whether the current bench has jurisdiction to manage sentencing for the defendants who have pleaded guilty, Li said, pending confirmation with her client.

The application was first made by defendant Tiffany Yuen on Tuesday, when her lawyer cited Section 32 of the High Court Ordinance to argue that every proceeding in the Court of First Instance shall be heard and determined by a single judge, unless there is a direction from the Chief Justice.

Ng Kin-wai, Carol Ng and Roy Tam and many of the other defendants have been detained for more than 20 months since they were taken into police custody on February 28, 2021. Most were denied bail on national security grounds following a four-day marathon bail hearing in early March last year, with only 13 of the 47 currently on bail.

The names of the 47 Hong Kong pro-democracy figures charged with conspiracy to commit subversion written on memo stickers. Photo: Supplied.

Thursday’s hearing marked the penultimate case management hearing for democrats who have pleaded guilty. Gary Fan, Hendrick Lui and Lester Shum will appear in court on Friday, while the 17 democrats who have pleaded not guilty will appear at a case management hearing next Tuesday.

Unlike most trials in the common law system, the case will not be tried by a jury but by three judges after Secretary for Justice Paul Lam cited “involvement of foreign elements” in the case in August as a reason of departing from a jury trial. He 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.”

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Kelly Ho

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.