Seventeen Hong Kong pro-democracy figures who have pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit subversion are expected to face a 90-day trial in early 2023, a court has heard.

High Court judges Andrew Chan, Wilson Chan and Johnny Chan on Tuesday held a case management hearing for 17 defendants who are among 47 well-known politicians and activists prosecuted under the Beijing-imposed national security law over unofficial legislative primary elections held in July 2020.

Tat Cheng 47 democrats
Tat Cheng on November 8, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The designated national security judges demanded the prosecution file a detailed opening statement or a draft of the admitted facts, which would identify their allegations against individual defendants and the evidence they plan to rely on.

The court wanted to know “the case against each specific defendant,” judge Andrew Chan told lead prosecutor Andy Lo, including the acts, conduct and words uttered by the accused the prosecution deemed as relevant to the charge.

“You have been sitting on this case for ages,” the judge said.

The 47 democrats were first brought to court in March last year, and most of them have been detained since after their bail applications were rejected on national security grounds following a four-day marathon hearing. At present, only 13 defendants are on bail.

Clarisse Yeung 47 democrats
Clarisse Yeung on November 8, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The alleged conspiracy revolved around the primary polls, which aimed to help the pro-democracy camp select candidates for an upcoming Legislative Council election and secure a majority in the legislature.

The defendants 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.

So far, 30 defendants have pleaded guilty and are awaiting mitigation and sentencing. It is not yet known whether that will happen before or after the trial of the 17 who denied the charge, which is also yet to be set.

‘Too broad’

The request for more detailed accusations was also raised by the defence on Tuesday, after they said the items listed in a questionnaire prepared by the prosecutors were “too broad or vague” for the accused to admit.

Raymond Chan 47 democrats
Raymond Chan on November 8, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Admitting to the items which contained “hidden traps” would cause “confusion or injustice” to his client, said barrister Cheung Yiu-leung, who represented former district councillor Clarisse Yeung.

While prosecutor Lo told the court that the facts they prepared could be agreed by the defendants, judge Andrew Chan cast doubt on such an anticipation. It would be a “fantasy” for the prosecutors to think they could seek common ground with the defence with the existing list of facts, he said.

“Whatever endeavour you are going to pursue, the result would be fruitless,” the judge remarked.

90-day trial

The democrats who denied the charge are set to stand trial before the three-judge panel – rather than a jury – after the Lunar New Year in late January or early February next year.

The whole trial was estimated to last for 91 working days, Lo said on Tuesday, with the hope of concluding the case that began more than 20 months ago in June or July next year.

Around 55 days would be allocated to the prosecution to prove their case by calling upon 51 witnesses and presenting around 100 video clips – totalling 43 hours long – to show the election forums held and events attended by the accused, Lo said.

Kalvin Ho 47 democrats
Kalvin Ho on November 8, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The defence, on the other hand, would be given 36 days to challenge the allegations, with journalist-turned activist Gwyneth Ho planning to call upon an expert witness in legislative and constitutional procedures. The plan came after Executive Council convenor and lawmaker Regina Ip was listed as a prosecution witness, Ho’s barrister Trevor Beel told the court.

Ip was summoned to testify in a closed-door preliminary hearing requested by defendant Gordon Ng back in July, when Principal Magistrate Peter Law ruled that there was sufficient evidence to commit the activist for trial.

The judges expressed concerns on Tuesday after Lo said the Department of Justice has yet to decide who would represent them at the trial. The choice of counsel would depend on the trial date, he said.

The case was adjourned to Wednesday morning for the prosecutors to seek advice and decide on their representation. They are also expected to inform the court when the requested draft of admitted facts or opening statement could be ready.

The court may still not be able to settle on a trial date, however, as judge Andrew Chan said some of the defendants who pleaded guilty have yet to admit to facts prepared by the prosecution. There is a possibility that more democrats will stand trial, he said.

Lee Yue Shun 47 democrats
Lee Yue Shun on November 8, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Tuesday’s hearing was held in the West Kowloon Law Courts Building instead of the High Court in Admiralty, where the courtrooms are not large enough to accommodate dozens of legal representatives, family members and friends of the defendants, journalists and members of the public, including diplomats from various consulates.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.