Former legislator Au Nok-hin, one of the 47 pro-democracy figures charged in a landmark national security case, has begun his testimony as the first prosecution witness at the trial of his 16 co-defendants.

Au Nok-hin. File photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Prosecutors called the 35-year-old activist to the stand on Monday, as the court entered the second week of a 90-day trial involving an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion. The scholars, lawmakers, activists and a journalist face three hand-picked judges, with no jury, and could be jailed for life under the Beijing-enacted security law.

At the centre of the case was an unofficial primary election held in July 2020, which aimed to help the pro-democracy camp win a controlling majority in the Legislative Council. The democrats are accused of planning to use legislative powers to indiscriminately veto bills, whilst forcing the chief executive’s resignation and a government shutdown. 

Escorted by three corrections officers, Au, who has spent almost two years in custody pending trial, held a pile of documents in his hand when he entered the courtroom.

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The ex-Democratic Party member, who earlier pleaded guilty, told the court on Monday that he first discussed the primaries with legal scholar Benny Tai at a meal gathering in late January, 2020. Also present were veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan, former Democratic Party chairman Lee Wing-tat and Raphael Wong of the League of Social Democrats, Au said.

According to Au, the group discussed the need to establish a coordination mechanism within the pro-democracy camp in order to maximise its chance of winning more seats in the legislature. It came after they saw a landslide victory against the pro-establishment camp in the 2019 District Council election held amid the anti-extradition bill unrest, he said.

Tai also mentioned there was a need to “respond” to the protests and find ways to strive for the five demands, which included setting up an independent commission to investigate alleged police misconduct, Au said.

Au promised to help organise the primary election during the meal gathering, he recalled, saying he had around six months left before he was set to pursue his studies abroad.

Benny Tai. File photo: Studio Incendo.

“I got this time to contribute what I saw as pro-democracy work at the time,” he said.

‘More bargaining power’

Tai was said to have described majority control of the legislature as a “constitutional weapon of mass destruction” during the meal gathering, saying the pro-democracy camp would have “more bargaining power” with the government. Legislators of the faction could also use powers enshrined in the Basic Law for vetoing, Au cited Tai as saying.

When asked by the prosecution what was to be vetoed, Au said it was not specified at the time, but it included the annual budget.

High Court Judge Johnny Chan, one of the three handpicked judges hearing the no-jury trial, interjected and he said he did not understand Au’s statement: “If nothing was specified, then why did it include the budget?”

Hong Kong Legislative Council. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Au responded by giving examples of what a controlling majority in the legislature could achieve, saying the former law professor had pointed out a “possibility.”

Judge Alex Lee told Au to only tell the court what was said by those present at the meal gathering and not to include any “assumptions” of what the participants had in mind: “We are dealing with a very serious charge here, so it is very important for you to stick to what was said and by whom.”

Defendants in different rooms

On Monday, nine defendants who pleaded guilty earlier were placed in other courtrooms to watch the live broadcast of the hearing, rather than sitting in the dock of the main courtroom alongside their co-defendants on trial.

They included prominent activists Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, ex-lawmakers Eddie Chu and Andrew Wan, ex-unionist Carol Ng, former district councillors Tiffany Yuen, Fergus Leung and Roy Tam and founder of now-defunct online media DB Channel Frankie Fung.

The live broadcast showed an overview of the main courtroom including the judges’ bench, the counsels’ desks and the dock, but did not show the witness stand.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, the Judiciary said on Monday night that trial judges or judiciary staff had the power to make specific directions relating to case management or other matters in court which may affect the execution of judicial work. The spokesperson said that defendants who pleaded guilty generally seldom sit in the trial hearing of the defendants who denied the charge. If they wished to do so, they had to seek approval from the trial judge.

“The judge would make suitable directions after considering different relevant factors,” they said, adding that the judges in the present case had made their directions and the Judiciary had nothing to add.

West Kowloon Law Courts Building. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The trial will resume on Tuesday morning for Au to continue his testimony. Apart from Au, three other defendants – Andrew Chiu, Ben Chung and Mike Lam – will also testify at the trial as accomplice witnesses.

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.