The high-profile trial of 17 Hong Kong pro-democracy figures who have pleaded not guilty in the city’s largest national security case is set to commence on January 30, 2023, by which time some of the defendants would have been detained for almost two years.

Former lawmakers Helena Wong, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Ray Chan, Lam Cheuk-ting and 13 other defendants who have denied playing a part in an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion will face a 90-day trial tentatively starting on January 30 next year, High Court judges Andrew Chan, Wilson Chan and Johnny Chan said on Wednesday.

47 democrats Clarisse Yeung Kalvin Ho Mike Lam Lawrence Lau
(From left to right) Defendants Clarisse Yeung, Kalvin Ho, Mike Lam and Lawrence Lau. Photos: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The Department of Justice (DoJ) will be represented by Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions (Special Duties) Anthony Chau and Jonathan Man Tak-ho, lead prosecutor Andy Lo told the court.

Chau has overseen numerous national security cases, including the prosecution of activist Tong Ying-kit in the first-ever trial under the Beijing-imposed security law last July.

A pre-trial review for the 17 democrats is set to take place on January 17. The hearing may be held in two sessions due to the large number of defendants and legal representatives involved. The three-judge panel requested the prosecution to file their opening submission by December 16, as well as a set of admitted facts agreed by both parties by December 30.

It was the first time for the court to announce a date for the trial, after the case involving a total of 47 well-known politicians and activists was first mentioned in March last year. Many defendants have been held in custody for more than 20 months, with only 13 democrats currently on bail.

The alleged conspiracy centred on unofficial legislative primary elections held in July 2020, which aimed to help the pro-democracy camp select candidates for an upcoming Legislative Council election.

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

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

So far, 30 defendants have pleaded guilty and are awaiting mitigation and sentencing. The three judges have yet to decide whether the democrats will face penalty before or after the trial of the 17 who denied the charge.

Judge Andrew Chan on Wednesday said he would “reward counsels by saving time” in a trial as lengthy as the one facing the democrats.

“I will make counsels’ lives very difficult if they are dragging the case on,” he said.

Judiciary Court of Final Appeal
Photo: GovHK.

Unlike most trials in Hong Kong’s common law system, the case will not be tried by a jury after Secretary for Justice Paul Lam in August cited “involvement of foreign elements” in the case 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.”

Ex-legislator Lam and activist Owen Chow will stand trial in separate criminal cases next year which will likely clash with the security law trial. The current case is to “take priority,” said Andrew Chan, who informed the chief magistrate and chief district judge about the timetable conflict.

Prominent activist Joshua Wong and former Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai, were among the defendants who attended Wednesday’s case management hearing even though they belong to the group of democrats who have pleaded guilty.

As the democrats in custody were escorted out of the dock by corrections officers, their family and friends and members of the public stood up and waved at them.

“Hang in there,” some court attendees said.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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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.