Some people queuing for tickets to witness Hong Kong’s largest national security trial have repeatedly left before hearings began, adding to questions over whether they were being paid.
Several pro-democracy figures on Monday expressed suspicions that some court goers were being paid to queue up for tickets to witness the 47 democrats’ trial after several who waited in long lines were seen leaving before hearings even started. Emilia Wong – whose partner Ventus Lau is a defendant – wrote on Facebook: “It is obvious that someone is trying to stop the general public from observing the case.”
Monday marked the start of a 90-day non-jury trial against former lawmakers, ex-district councillors and other pro-democracy activists who stand accused of taking part in a conspiracy to commit subversion. The offence under the Beijing-imposed security legislation could land the defendants up to life behind bars if convicted.
HKFP reporters have seen one man queuing outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building every day since Monday, when the trial against 16 of the 47 democrats began.
The man was photographed waiting outside the courthouse in the early hours on Monday, and then again a few hours after the first day’s proceedings had ended.
On Monday evening, he was seen at the front of a queue of around 20 people that had formed outside the courthouse. When approached by an HKFP reporter, the man told them to stop asking questions.
On Tuesday morning, an HKFP reporter on the scene saw the man enter the courthouse for security checks after receiving a ticket. He went up an escalator to the courtroom, but was not seen in the public gallery in the main courtroom, nor the court extension rooms, when the hearing started.
There are 39 seats for members of the public in the main courtroom and an additional 367 in court extensions, where people can watch a live broadcast. The Judiciary confirmed to HKFP on Monday that “if any seat remains vacant, or if any seat originally occupied by a ticket holder has been left vacant for 15 minutes or more… the seat concerned will be allocated to another court user waiting in the queue.”
The man left the court building at around 9.45 a.m., 15 minutes before Tuesday’s hearing was set to begin.
He spoke on the phone near the courthouse, before meeting a group of around seven people under a footbridge nearby.
They later sat down in a restaurant in the area and were seen handling money, including HK$50 banknotes.
HKFP reporters saw the same man waiting outside the court building with three others on Wednesday morning. After receiving tickets for the extension court, the group went through security checks before sitting down outside the court’s general registry.
A group of just over a dozen people gathered outside the general registry then split up and left in three smaller groups, with the man in question leaving at 9:52, minutes before the trial was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.
The man refused to respond to reporters’ questions outside court, including as to why he left before the trial began, and whether he had been paid to queue up for court seats.
He told reporters “you’re fucking harassing me,” and said claims people had been paid to queue up were “only allegations.”
The man eventually went back into the court building and left through another exit.
Meanwhile, a Wednesday editorial from state-controlled newspaper Ta Kung Pao also raised suspicions about those involved in the public gallery controversy. They claimed that people showing up to witness cases linked to the 2019 extradition bill protests were attempting to interfere with the courts.
“Whenever there are trials linked to 2019 black riot cases, there are always some people queuing up to observe the case and occupy the public gallery,” the editorial read. “In the name of court goers, they are actually an organised group of black riot comrades with a premeditation to interfere with the judiciary.”
HKFP has reached out to the Judiciary for comment.
‘HK$1,000’ per person
The Witness on Tuesday reported that a man had told one of its reporters that those who queued up overnight could receive HK$1,000, while those who arranged for people to join the queue would be paid HK$1,500.
On Monday, an elderly woman approached a group of journalists, including an HKFP reporter, to ask about receiving payment for queuing up and attending court in the morning. She said that she heard “from other people” that the going rate was HK$150, and that she thought she could get HK$450 for her time.
Others who were queueing on Monday evening were seen checking WhatsApp groups named “February 6.” One of the groups included messages showing a photo of a ticket for an extension court, as well as several messages reporting when individuals had left or saying they would “carry on.”
The democrats are accused of organising primaries to win the 2020 legislative election in a bid to use constitutional mechanisms to paralyse the government and force the chief executive’s resignation. Most were detained for almost two years awaiting trial.
16 pleaded not guilty whist 31 pleaded guilty – of those, four are acting as witnesses for the prosecution against their peers during the 90-day trial.
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