Dozens of pro-democracy activists returned to a Hong Kong courtroom Tuesday, as their marathon hearing on charges of subversion entered a second day.
The 47 pro-democracy political figures, a broad cross-section of Hong Kong residents, faced formal charges of subversion under the city’s controversial national security law.
Hundreds of protesters defied social distancing laws to gather outside in support of those being tried.
The first hearing for the 39 men and eight women lasted more than 10 hours at the West Kowloon Magistrates Court. The hearing was eventually adjourned until Tuesday morning after one of the defendants, Clarisse Yeung, collapsed and was admitted to a hospital.
All of the defendants were to be held in a detention center overnight; Yeung will remain in the hospital under police custody.
Despite a lengthy day, the number of defendants and the number of defense lawyers and prosecutors, 27 defense teams were not able to present their cases, local media reported. Hong Kong lawyer Hang Tung Chow, representing defendant Owen Chow, told VOA they have yet to submit their case.
On Sunday, authorities formally charged the 47 with conspiracy to subvert state power. They were ordered to report to police stations Monday, weeks earlier than expected. If convicted, they face up to life in prison.
Most of the activists in court Monday were among the 55 arrested in January because of their involvement in Hong Kong’s primary elections last July. The primaries are the unofficial elections that allow voters to pick opposition candidates ahead of the now-postponed Legislative Council elections originally set for September 2020.
Those candidates included Joshua Wong — who is serving jail time after being found guilty of unlawful assembly in a separate case. Former law professor Benny Tai and former pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo were also charged. Eight of those swept up in the initial mass arrests in January were included in the 47 charged, including U.S. human rights lawyer, John Clancey.
After last year’s pro-democracy protests, Beijing implemented the national security law for Hong Kong that took effect on June 30, 2020. Among other things, it prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted.
The law has been the catalyst for sweeping changes in the city: street protests have stopped, and slogans have been banned. Most of the pro-democracy activists and political figures are now in jail, while others have fled in self-exile.
With Monday’s court hearing scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., hundreds of supporters gathered outside the courthouse hours earlier. But when Chief Magistrate Victor So Wai-tak discovered some of the defendants hadn’t been able to meet with their attorneys, the hearing was rescheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m.
Outside the court building, protesters held a banner that read “release all political prisoners” while others chanted, “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now,” despite it now deemed illegal under the city’s security legislation. Several pro-Beijing supporters also showed up, holding China’s national flag and calling for activists to go to jail without bail, according to local reports.
As its numbers grew, police warned the crowd about violating social distancing regulations, with some receiving fixed-penalty fines. Officers then raised both blue and purple warning flags, in attempts to disperse the crowd and warn those gathered that they were potentially violating the national security law.
As the day wore on, the defence teams submitted their cases, arguing their defendants wouldn’t endanger national security. Local media reports said some defendants pledged not to accept interviews, post on social media or take part in future elections to ensure bail.
Article 42 of the national security law states, “No bail shall be granted to a criminal suspect or defendant unless the judge has sufficient grounds for believing that the criminal suspect or defendant will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”
But questions remain over whether bail would be granted for the activists. In the case of media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who has been in jail since December after being charged under the security law for foreign collusion, his appeals for bail have been rejected, except for a one-week period at the end of December.
And according to one top Beijing official, three notable activists all charged under the security law must be “severely punished under the law.”
Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macau State Affairs Office of the State Council, singled the three out – Tai, Wong and Lai -- during a speech at a seminar in Beijing last month, according to local reports.
Baolong described the three as “extremely bad ones” out of a small minority who are attempting to endanger national security.
In February, Baolong said that only patriots should govern Hong Kong; amid recent news Beijing is planning an overhaul of the electoral system in the Chinese city.
Former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, who is in self-exile in Britain after fleeing Hong Kong while under criminal charges, told VOA the “political participation of Democrats will be totally impossible in the future.”
Political commentator Joseph Cheng told VOA Sunday that charging the pro-democracy opposition figures is part of a plan for Beijing to take political control of the city.
“This is an important part of the strategy to deny the pro-democracy movement a role in the political system,” Cheng told VOA.