Hong Kong prosecutors have alleged a former district council chairman – who has not been arrested or charged – as a “co-conspirator” in a landmark national security case against 47 pro-democracy figures.

Choi Chak-hung
Ex-Kwun Tong District Council chairman Choi Chak-hung. File photo: Choi Chak-hung, via Facebook.

Prosecutors on Monday told a panel of three designated judges that Choy Chak-hung, former chairperson of Kwun Tong District Council, was also involved in a conspiracy to commit subversion in connection with an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020.

The new accusation emerged during the prosecution’s re-examination of former lawmaker Au Nok-hin, the first of four defendants testifying against their peers, on day 32 of the lengthy trial, which is scheduled to last for 90 days.

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions (Special Duties) Anthony Chau mentioned Choy when he referred Au to messages in a WhatsApp group for Power for Democracy. The disbanded political group was said to have executed the primaries by supporting the coordination of participating candidates, recruiting volunteers and publicising the polls, among other roles.

Au said that Choy had messaged him and asked him to report what had been said during a Kowloon East constituency meeting to the polls’ organisers.

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High Court judge Alex Lee referred to five points mentioned in the message dated on June 14, 2020, and asked whether the prosecution was accusing Choy of being one of the co-conspirators.

Chau responded by saying the prosecution had argued in the indictment that the alleged conspiracy involved “others.” Lee pressed the prosecutor and questioned whether “others” included Choy, saying the prosecution had to inform the court if that was their case.

Chau paused for a few seconds and replied: “Yes, he is.”

Defendants in the dock looked shocked when Chau made the allegation. Some opened their mouths, while others said, “What?”

When asked by judge Andrew Chan about the basis of this new allegation, Chau said the former district council chairman had attended multiple meetings and it could be inferred that he had knowledge about the alleged conspiracy.

democrats pro democracy 35+ legco legislative council primary election 2020 september au nok hin andrew chiu benny tai
Au Nok-hin. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Following the morning break, Au told the court that the role of a district council chairperson was “limited,” adding he did not want there to be “an issue” with people having sent him messages.

“It would cause unnecessary worry to many,” he said.

Choy, who was in the public gallery on Monday, was not among the 55 democrats apprehended under the Beijing-imposed security law in January 2021. The authorities later pressed charges on 47 of those arrested, while the others have not been formally charged.

At the centre of the alleged conspiracy was the unofficial primary election that saw more than 600,000 Hongkongers casting their ballots on July 11 and 12 in 2020. The polls aimed to maximise the opposition camp’s chances of winning majority control of the legislature at an upcoming Legislative Council election, which was later postponed due to Covid-19.

The 47 democrats stand accused of having intended to abuse lawmakers’ powers to indiscriminately veto the annual budget, paralyse government operations and ultimately force the chief executive to step down.

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

A total of 16 democrats are currently undergoing a non-jury trial after they denied the charge, while their 31 co-defendants have pleaded guilty and await sentencing. The group could face up to life imprisonment if convicted.

Au, who was among those who pleaded guilty, completed his testimony at around noon on Monday, after spending more than 20 days in court facing questions from the prosecution and the defence.

The next accomplice witness, former convenor of Power for Democracy Andrew Chiu, was summoned to the court in the afternoon to review around 4,000 pages of documents. The trial hearing is set to continue on Tuesday morning at the earliest, subject to whether Chiu would require more reading time.

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 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.