The long-awaited verdict in the sedition trial against two former editors of independent outlet Stand News may yet be delayed, as the hearing originally scheduled for the ruling to be handed down has been changed to a “submission” hearing, according to the Judiciary’s website.

The defendants have waited almost two years for proceedings to draw to a close after being arrested and charged in December 2021.

Stand News Chung Pui-kuen Patrick Lam 2023.6.28
Patrick Lam (left) and Chung Pui-kuen. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The District Court was scheduled to hand down a verdict in the case involving former Stand News editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen and former acting chief editor Patrick Lam next Wednesday after the decision was postponed from October. The veteran journalists stand accused of conspiring to publish seditious publications along with the outlet’s parent company, Best Pencil Limited.

But according to the Judiciary’s website, next week’s proceeding has been marked as a submission hearing rather than a verdict, and is set to last for three hours.

During a submission hearing, the defence and prosecution will typically present their arguments to a judge.

See also: Hong Kong’s Stand News trial

Citing sources, The Witness reported on Monday that the prosecution and defence would make submissions relating to a recent judgement from the UK’s Privy Council, which confirmed that sedition offences must include elements of inciting violence.

Legal scholar Johannes Chan of the University of Hong Kong told The Witness earlier that although the Privy Council’s judgement was not binding in Hong Kong courts, the court would accept such arguments.

Two-year wait

The closely-watched trial first began in October last year and was originally set to last for 20 days. Proceedings, however, lasted beyond 50 days.

Chung and Lam have waited almost two years for a verdict since their initial arrests under the colonial-era sedition law on December 29, 2021. On that day, more than 200 national security police officers raided the outlet’s newsroom and apprehended seven people, although only Chung and Lam were charged. Stand News subsequently ceased operations and deleted its website.

The District Court in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, on November 2, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.
The District Court in Wan Chai. File photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.

The two former editors were held in custody pending trial for almost a year before the court granted them bail. Although not under the Beijing-imposed security law, those suspected of committing an offence under the sedition law are subject to the same stringent bail restrictions.

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.”

Seditious intent

During the closing arguments in June, the prosecution argued that there was no need to prove the editors’ seditious intent. Instead, the focus should be whether the 17 articles concerned – including interviews and commentary – were seditious, and whether the editors knew they were seditious, lead prosecutor Laura Ng told the court.

Stand News had a greater influence on public opinion than traditional media, hence distributing seditious publications was more serious than committing an impulsive seditious act, she added.

Judiciary Court of Final Appeal
The Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

The defence, led by Senior Counsel Audrey Eu, contended that the articles in question were examples handpicked to indicate the editors’ behaviour, adding the prosecution shifted the ground of their arguments and introduced hundreds of articles beyond the original evidence list.

Sedition is not covered by the Beijing-imposed national security law, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts and mandates up to life imprisonment. Those convicted under the sedition law – last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still a British colony – face a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.