People acquitted under the Beijing-imposed national security law at Hong Kong’s High Court could be remanded if the government appeals their exoneration, the city’s justice minister has said.

The government tabled a proposal to the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Monday to allow appeals against not-guilty verdicts in national security cases tried at the city’s High Court. To date, no one has been acquitted under the sweeping security legislation.

High Court.
High Court. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Under the proposal to amend the Criminal Procedure Ordinance, the Department of Justice would be allowed to appeal against acquittal decisions in national security cases made by a panel of three judges at the Court of First Instance.

Currently, the prosecution cannot appeal against a Court of First Instance decision to acquit a defendant, even in cases under the national security law.

According to the government proposal, cases tried by a jury would not be affected. Since the implementation of the security law in June 2020, no national security cases reaching the High Court have been tried by a jury.

While trials at the High Court are usually heard by a jury, the Beijing-imposed law stipulated that a jury can be excluded for reasons including the need to protect state secrets or the safety of members of the jury and their families.

The courts should also be authorised to order the person facing appeal to be remanded or grant bail to them, said Secretary for Justice Paul Lam on Monday.

Secretary for Justice Paul Lam
Secretary for Justice Paul Lam. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Defendants charged under the national security law face a more stringent bail threshold.

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.”

“The injustice of acquitting those [who are] guilty is not smaller than that of convicting innocent people,” said Lam.

“For crimes endangering national security, a wrong acquittal decision could cause very serious consequences.”

The security law 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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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.