A Hong Kong judge has warned against any harassment of prosecution witnesses in the city’s largest national security trial involving 47 democracy advocates. The warning came ahead of testimony set to begin next week.

A prison van turning into the road outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on February 9, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Anyone who harasses or interferes with witnesses at the landmark “conspiracy to commit subversion” case would be liable for criminal contempt of court, High Court judge Andrew Chan said on Thursday. They would also be removed from the court building.

Chan gave his warning on behalf of a panel of three designated judges on day four of the closely-watched trial of 16 democrats, who denied the charge that is punishable by up to life imprisonment under the Beijing-enacted security law. Among the defendants are former lawmakers, ex-district councillors, a former journalist and other activists.

The remaining 31 defendants, including former law professor Benny Tai and prominent activist Joshua Wong, have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced after the trial concludes. Some have been remanded in custody for almost two years while waiting for the case to move to trial.

Defendant Michael Pang outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on February 9, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The case focuses on an unofficial primary held in July 2020 by the pro-democracy camp to choose candidates for an upcoming Legislative Council election. The democrats are accused of plotting to abuse their powers as lawmakers, if they secured a majority, to indiscriminately veto budget bills, force the chief executive to resign and drive the government into a shutdown.

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Prosecutors are expected to call their witnesses starting next Monday, after they finished delivering their opening statement on Thursday. It was revealed in court earlier that defendants Au Nok-hin, Andrew Chiu and Ben Chung – described as organisers of the primary election – would be testifying as accomplice witnesses. Primary election candidate Mike Lam, who is also the founder of chain store AbouThai, will also give testimony for the prosecution.

Election paraphernalia

The court on Thursday heard the prosecution build its case against individual defendants by citing their election manifestos, pamphlets, social media posts, media interviews and other materials as proof of support for – and active participation in – the primary election.

Defendant and ex-lawmaker Helena Wong outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on February 9, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Anthony Chau referred to notes seized from the home of former legislator Lam Cheuk-ting following his arrest in January 2021. He said it was stated in Lam’s notes that he “completely agreed with the subversive ideology of ‘Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times’.”

The slogan, frequently chanted during the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests, has been banned in Hong Kong since July 2020, when the government said it contained subversive and secessionist connotations, contravening the sweeping national security law which went into force on June 30, 2020.

Police deployment outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on February 9, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Another defendant Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist for the now-defunct online media outlet Stand News, was said to have pledged “unwavering resistance” and “fostered resentment towards the authorities” in her election manifesto published on Facebook in June 2020.

Her co-defendant Owen Chow, on the other hand, was accused of promoting “secessionist ideas,” such as creating a “Hong Kong nationality,” at an election forum on June 28, 2020.

The case was adjourned to Friday morning for the court to hear arguments on the admissibility of a police officer as an expert witness for the prosecution. The officer’s testimony is expected to be related to social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube.

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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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.