Sixteen pro-democracy figures currently on trial over an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion have a case to answer, a Hong Kong court has ruled. The ruling came after a three-judge panel rejected a bid by four defendants to throw out the charge, arguing that prosecutors had failed to provide sufficient evidence against them under the national security law.

Gordon Ng Helena Wong Gwyneth Ho Lam Cheuk-ting
From left: Gordon Ng, Helena Wong, Gwyneth Ho, Lam Cheuk-ting. Photo: Gordon Ng Concern Group, via Facebook; Kyle Lam/HKFP; Gwyneth Ho, via Facebook; Democratic Party.

Three High Court judges ruled on Friday that prosecutors had presented enough evidence to build a prima facie case against the 16 defendants, who were among 47 prominent politicians and activists arrested and charged under the Beijing-imposed security legislation in 2021 over an unofficial legislative primary election.

The ruling came after representatives of former lawmakers Lam Cheuk-ting and Helena Wong, journalist-turned activist Gwyneth Ho and activist Gordon Ng made “no case to answer” submissions on Thursday. They contended that there was no clear definition on the “unlawful means” allegedly employed by the defendants to subvert state power.

At the centre of the alleged conspiracy were primary elections held in July 2020, which aimed to help the opposition camp select the strongest candidates to win majority control in the 70-seat legislature, before the city revamped its elections.

The democrats stand accused of having agreed to abuse their powers as lawmakers, if elected, to indiscriminately veto any government budget or public expenditure, compel the chief executive to dissolve the Legislative Council and paralyse government operations, and cause the city’s leader to step down. 

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Designated national security judges Andrew Chan, Alex Lee and Johnny Chan said on Friday that they had considered the arguments presented by the defence and the prosecution and found there was a case to answer.

Out of 16 democrats currently on trial, 13 are set to give evidence in court, except Ng, ex-district councillor Clarisse Yeung, former chairwoman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance Winnie Yu. Some defendants will also call witnesses to the stand, their lawyers told the court.

“I am prepared to go up to box,” said barrister and former district councillor Lawrence Lau, who is defending himself in the case.

Judge Andrew Chan reserved 39 days for the defence case, after taking into account the time needed for defence witnesses to give statements and be cross-examined by the prosecution.

47 democrats
(From left to right) Ng Kin-wai, Jimmy Sham, Lawrence Lau, Henry Wong, Kwok Ka-ki, Lee Yue-shun, Lam Cheuk-ting, Sam Cheung and Ray Chan getting on a Correctional Services Department vehicle on March 3, 2021. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

It was a “safe” estimation and the court may not use all 39 days, Chan added.

If the defence case lasts for 39 days, it will exceed the original estimated trial length of 90 days.

Friday marked day 64 of the lengthy trial, which began on February 6. The remaining 31 defendants pleaded guilty earlier and are waiting to be sentenced, with the maximum penalty being life imprisonment.

Many defendants have been detained for more than two years since the case was first brought to court in March 2021.

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.