Hong Kong prosecutors are set to apply for a witness anonymity order in the city’s largest national security trial relating to 47 pro-democracy figures. Meanwhile, the hearing was adjourned after a defendant on bail was absent in court due to a sports injury.
A panel of three designated national security judges presiding over the landmark trial called for it to be adjourned on Wednesday. The date marked exactly two years since former law professor Benny Tai, prominent activist Joshua Wong, former lawmakers and other democracy advocates were brought to court for the first time to face the charge of conspiracy to commit subversion.
The adjournment came after former Eastern district councillor Lee Yue-shun was absent from court because of a concussion, an injury sustained while Thai boxing. Lee’s representative Steven Kwan said his client had been admitted to Tuen Mun Hospital on Tuesday after sustaining the head injury over the weekend. The democrat – who is one of 13 defendants currently on bail – had been asked to remain in hospital for observation, the lawyer said, adding it was unclear whether his condition was serious or not.
While Kwan confirmed that Lee agreed to the trial continuing in his absence, High Court judge Alex Lee said it was not “prudent” to do so. Judge Andrew Chan also said the court would only exercise such discretion in “rare and exceptional circumstances.”
“For the defendants on bail, please don’t engage in any dangerous sports,” judge Johnny Chan said, as other judges reminded the defendants to consider the legal expenses and public expenditure on police deployment if the case was postponed again.
New witness statements
Representing journalist-turned activist Gwyneth Ho, barrister Trevor Beel said he “deprecated” the service of new witness statements from the prosecution on Tuesday. One of the testimonies was taken from Kim Chan, who has been linked to footage shot at a coordination meeting of the New Territories West constituency.
The remaining statements came from a man surnamed Yip, who was said to be a manager at TVB News and a police officer who was responsible for gathering evidence.
The barrister argued that if the statements were related to chain of evidence, they “should have been obtained a long time ago.”
“I share your disaffection,” judge Alex Lee said.
Jonathan Man, deputy director of public prosecutions (I), told the court that the prosecution wished to apply for an anonymity order for one of the witnesses mentioned by Beel. But the judges said his request would be handled when defendant Lee Yue-shun appears in court again.
The hearing may resume on Thursday afternoon at the earliest.
At the centre of the case is an unofficial primary election held in July 2020, which aimed to help the opposition camp win majority control in the legislature. The democrats were said to have intended to abuse their legislative powers to indiscriminately veto bills, forcing the chief executive’s resignation and a government shutdown.
A total of 16 democrats are facing a no-jury trial, while 31 other defendants have pleaded guilty. They face up to life in prison if convicted.
Some activists have been detained for more than two years since they were taken into police custody on February 28, 2021. Only 13 of the 47 democrats are currently on bail as others were denied bail on national security grounds.
Bail applications in national security cases have to go through a stricter assessment. Judges consider not only the defendant’s risk of absconding or obstructing justice, but also whether there are sufficient grounds for believing they “will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”
Most defendants in the dock attended the hearing unmasked on Wednesday, after Hong Kong lifted its Covid-19 mask mandate at midnight, more than 2.5 years since the curb was put in place.
Families and friends in the public gallery smiled and waved at the democrats before they were escorted away by corrections officers.
On this day two years ago, more than 200 people – many dressed in black – lined up outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building to support the 47 defendants. Some held banners that read “Release all political prisoners,” while others chanted slogans including “Five demands, not one less” and “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” The latter has been deemed illegal under the national security law.
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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