Four Hong Kong activists are set to testify for the prosecution in a landmark national security case against 47 democracy advocates, prosecutors revealed in court.

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From left: Ben Chung, Au Nok-hin, Andrew Chiu and Mike Lam. File photo: HKFP, Wikicommons.

A three-judge panel heard on Monday that former lawmaker Au Nok-hin, ex-district councillors Andrew Chiu and Ben Chung, and founder of retail chain AbouThai Mike Lam were expected to be accomplice witnesses for the prosecution in a trial surrounding an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020.

A total of 16 democrats are facing a 90-day trial before designated national security judges Andrew Chan, Johnny Chan and Alex Lee under the security law, after they denied being part of a conspiracy to commit subversion.

trial 47 democrats
The national security trial of Hong Kong’s 47 democrats began on Monday, February 6. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Trial by jury has been used by Hong Kong’s common law legal system for more than 150 years, but the security legislation imposed by Beijing in June 2020 allows cases to be heard by hand-picked national security judges.

The 47 democrats 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.

The remaining 31 defendants pleaded guilty and will face sentencing – up to life in prison – after the trial concludes.

trial 47 democrats
A long queue outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on February 6, 2023, when the national security trial of Hong Kong’s 47 democrats began. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Monday’s hearing began at around 10 a.m. with court staff reading out the charge and taking pleas from 18 defendants. All except ex-district councillor Ng Kin-wai and merchant Lam repeated their not guilty pleas.

Ng, who indicated his intention to change his plea to guilty last November, told the three judges: “I did not succeed in subverting the state power of an totalitarian country. I plead guilty.”

Lam also officially confirmed that he pleaded guilty to the charge, after he informed the court of his intention to change his plea last month. He was excused from attending the rest of the trial and left the courthouse in a car during the morning recess.

Reiterating his not guilty plea, former legislator “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung said in court that there was “no crime to admit.”

Judge demands ‘respect’

Judge Andrew Chan told members of the public to “respect” the hearing, after some people laughed while the democrats were taking pleas. “This is a very solemn occasion… I paid every respect to every defendant… so I ask for the same respect from you,” he said.

Andrew Chan
Judge Andrew Chan. Photo: Judiciary.

The judge also warned the defendants not to disturb the proceedings or shout from the dock.

“If you continue to interrupt the proceedings, I may have to put the order of putting you behind the door,” he said.

The high-profile case was first brought to court in March 2021, when most defendants were denied bail on national security grounds. Only 13 democrats are currently on bail, while many of the accused have been incarcerated for almost two years.

Among more than 20 defence lawyers in court on Monday were Senior Counsel Hectar Pun and barristers Erik Shum, Trevor Beel and David Ma. The prosecution was led by Deputy Director of Prosecutions (I) Jonathan Man Tak-ho and Anthony Chau, deputy director of public prosecutions (special duties), along with other representatives.

Notebook computers

Judge Andrew Chan on Monday approved an application for democrats to use notebook computers during the trial. He said the devices could only be used for making notes, not for defendants to communicate with one another or the outside world.

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The Correctional Services Department may bar defendants from taking the computers to their cells, judge Andrew Chan said. But it would be up to the department to decide and the court would not interfere, he said.

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The prosecution will deliver its opening submission in the afternoon.

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, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. 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, the 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.