In February, the landmark national security trial of 47 democrats began after some had spent almost two years in detention. The sedition case against now-defunct independent media outlet Stand News dragged on, as prosecutors grilled a former chief editor about the 2019 protests and his intentions in publishing certain opinion articles.

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(From left to right) Defendants Clarisse Yeung, Tat Cheng, Helena Wong and Kalvin Ho. Photos: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Democrats’ trial begins

Hong Kong’s largest national security trial began on February 6, almost two years after the case of the 47 pro-democracy figures was first mentioned in court in March 2021.

Former lawmakers, ex-district councillors and a former Stand News reporter are among 16 defendants facing a no-jury trial. They deny conspiracy to commit subversion in connection with an opposition primary election held in July 2020 to choose candidates for an upcoming legislative election, while 31 other democrats have pleaded guilty.

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Prosecutors say the defendants, had they won a majority in the legislature, planned to veto budget bills with the aim of toppling the chief executive.They could face up to life imprisonment if convicted.

The founder of retail chain AbouThai, Mike Lam, changed his plea to guilty on the first day of the trial. Together with ex-legislator Au Nok-hin and former district council members Andrew Chiu and Ben Chung, he is set to testify against his fellow democrats.

So far, the panel of three handpicked judges overseeing the case has heard the prosecution’s opening statement and Au’s testimony as the first prosecution witness. Benny Tai, who taught law at the University of Hong Kong before being sacked in late July 2020, was said to have deemed majority control in the Legislative Council to be a “lethal constitutional weapon” that could cause “mass destruction.”

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Au Nok-hin. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

During his testimony, Au, labelled as one of the organisers of the scheme, revealed the democrats were divided over candidate selection in the primary. It was also disclosed in court that the former Democratic Party politician was already assisting the police in September 2021, around six months after he was detained.

The prosecution has finished questioning Au and he will face cross-examination by the defence.

Prosecutors also confirmed that they intend to use the co-conspirator rule to implicate all defendants and submitted a 25-page evidence list detailing the exhibits they planned to rely on.

The lengthy trial continues in March. It is estimated to last at least 90 working days.

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The trial of Hong Kong’s 47 democrats is set to begin on Monday, February 6. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Suspicions of “paid” courtgoers emerged in the first week of the closely-watched trial, after some people who were waiting in line for admission tickets told reporters they did not know what they were queuing for.

Some individuals who secured tickets to the public gallery in court were also repeatedly seen leaving the courthouse before the hearing began.

An HKFP reporter followed a man and saw him counting money along with other tickets at a restaurant near the courthouse. Online news outlet InMedia later reported that the queuing arrangements appeared to be coordinated by a man with links to a pro-establishment group.

Stand News trial

The trial of two former top editors of shuttered media outlet Stand News under the colonial-era sedition law is set to continue until the end of March. It was forecast to last 20 days when it began in October last year.

Stand News’ ex-editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen, accused of conspiring to publish 17 allegedly “seditious” articles between July 2020 and December 2021, has been questioned for weeks by lead prosecutor Laura Ng.

The other defendants are former acting chief editor Patrick Lam and the outlet’s parent company Best Pencil (Hong Kong) Limited.

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Stand News’ former chief editors Chung Pui-kuen (left) and Patrick Lam (right) on December 9, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Ng grilled Chung on his perceptions of the background to the case, including the 2019 extradition bill protests. Her questions touched on the credibility of police brutality accusations, opinion articles published by Stand News on the primary election and whether the veteran journalist would have interviewed Osama Bin Laden after the September 11 attacks.

She also asked if supporters of the Hong Kong localist camp were more prone to misinformation, while citing three other Stand News op-eds as proof of Chung’s intentions when he published an opinion piece by self-exiled activist Nathan Law on the 47 democrats.

The trial will resume on March 7.

Martial arts coach jailed for 5 years

Hong Kong martial arts coach Denis Wong was jailed for five years after pleading guilty to inciting subversion under the Beijing-imposed national security law and to one count of possessing weapons without a license.

The 59-year-old was said to have made subversive posts and shared subversive messages on his two Facebook accounts. His posts were “designed to rekindle the feelings of discontent and disgust against the Police Force, the Hong Kong SAR and the Chinese Government,” District Judge Ernest Lin ruled.

Weapons confiscated by the police during the searches in Tsim Sha Tsui, Sha Tin, and Ma On Shan. Photo: Hong Kong Police, via video screenshot.

During the sentencing, Lin accidentally cut himself while handling a machete that had been admitted as evidence. The weapon was seized from Wong’s home in Sha Tin along with two other machetes, two crossbows, one axe, three swords, 21 arrows and 40 short arrows.

Wong’s co-defendant and assistant Iry Cheung was jailed for 16 months for weapons possession.

Ex-cop convicted

Former police officer Chui Chun-man was convicted under the sedition law over Facebook comments about the death of marine police officer Lam Yuen-yee in September 2021.

Lam drowned when a boat used for smuggling collided with her police boat. Her body was found days after the crash.

Chui was said to have left comments on the police Facebook page, including one reading “the marine female officer should be dead.” He also shared articles about Lam being missing on his own Facebook page, with comments such as “hopefully [we] can identify the body earlier.”

Prison visits

Secretary for Security Chris Tang alleged that some young inmates had been inculcated with hatred of the Hong Kong government during prison visits. Some visitors, who met inmates they did not know personally, have used different means to “corrupt” youngsters jailed for offences linked to the 2019 extradition bill protests, he said.

Chris Tang
Secretary for Security Chris Tang. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The official warned that such “soft resistance tactics” could endanger national security.

Tang’s accusations came days after both of the city’s pro-Beijing newspapers, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, published reports on prison visitors and called them “remnants of the black riot.” The papers said these individuals were “stirring up trouble,” including telling inmates to file complaints against corrections officers.

Overseas lawyers

The Hong Kong government submitted a proposal to amend the Legal Practitioners Ordinance. The change would require local courts to obtain a certificate from the city’s leader before considering whether to allow foreign defence lawyers to appear in national security cases.

China’s top decision-making body issued its first interpretation of the national security law last December. It did not rule directly on whether foreign lawyers should be allowed in national security cases, but said the chief executive and the city’s national security committee had the final say in the matter.

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King’s Counsel Timothy Owen leaving the Court of Final Appeal in Central on November 25, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The debate arose from the high-profile national security case against pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who hired British lawyer Timothy Owen as his representative. Chief Executive John Lee invited Beijing to intervene in the matter last November, after the High Court and Court of Appeal refused government requests to block Owen’s admission.

The proposed amendments would not affect previous court rulings, said Lee’s adviser and Senior Counsel Ronny Tong, but the authorities may reject Owen’s appearance for other reasons.

Arrest and prosecution tally

As of February 17, 243 people had been arrested over suspected acts and activities that endangered national security since the legislation was enacted on June 30, 2020, the Security Bureau told HKFP. Among those, 149 people and five companies have been charged.

According to the Bureau, 62 people have been convicted or are awaiting sentencing; among them 26 have been convicted or awaiting sentencing under the Beijing-imposed law. It did not specify the offences committed by the remaining 36 defendants.

Separately, the Correctional Services Department revealed in its annual review that 22 people were admitted to correctional institutes last year under the national security law.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.