HONG KONG: Dozens of Hong Kong dissidents charged with subversion were sent to jail yesterday at the end of a marathon bail hearing that reignited international alarm over China’s crackdown on dissent in the finance hub. Police charged 47 of the city’s best-known democracy activists on Sunday for “conspiracy to commit subversion” in the broadest use yet of a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the city last year.
The defendants represent a wide cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition, from veteran former pro-democracy lawmakers to academics, lawyers, social workers and youth activists. What followed was an extraordinary four-day bail hearing that illustrated the profound changes Beijing’s security law has begun making to the financial hub’s legal traditions.
Yesterday evening, after hours of arguments from prosecutors and defense, chief magistrate Victor So ordered 32 members of the group to be returned to custody. “The court does not find it has sufficient ground to believe that you will not continue to commit acts that endanger national security,” he told the court. The remaining 15 defendants were granted bail but the prosecution immediately appealed. As a result they were also ordered back to custody but will be allowed to take their case to the city’s High Court within the next 48 hours.
Anger outside court
Emotional scenes erupted outside the court yesterday evening as news of the decision filtered out to dozens of relatives and supporters. “They want to silence all voices they don’t like,” a woman who gave her first name as Elsa and identified herself as the step-mother of defendant Hendrick Lui, told reporters. “These are the voices of justice that Hong Kong people need. But the evil regime is trying to cover their mouths, silence them and put them behind bars,” she added.
Some of the city’s most prominent Beijing critics will now remain in custody for months as prosecutors prepare for a mass trial-in what one analyst has described as the largest subversion prosecution since the aftermath of the deadly 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
The ruling also cements how the security law overturns the presumption of bail for non-violent crimes. Under the new law-which Beijing imposed on the city last June-defendants will only get bail if they can persuade a court they no longer pose any kind of national security risk.
Almost all have failed and the handful of bail requests granted so far have been immediately appealed by Hong Kong’s prosecutors. Reporting limitations forbid detailing the minutiae of the legal arguments over the last four days after judge So declined a request to lift media restrictions.
The alleged offence of those charged with subversion was organizing an unofficial primary election last summer to choose candidates for the city’s legislature, in the hopes that the pro-democracy bloc might take a majority and stymie government legislation. Chinese and Hong Kong officials said this was an attempt to “overthrow” the city’s government, and therefore a threat to national security.
With so many arrested at once, the court struggled to deal with the caseload. The first day’s hearing only ended in the small hours of the morning when one of the defendants collapsed. Seven defendants had to be taken to hospital over the course of the hearing. Many complained of a lack of food, sleep, fresh clothes and showers. The length of the hearing-and the decision to bring charges despite the prosecution requesting a further three months to continue building their case-sparked criticism in some legal circles.
“There is no reason at all to charge the defendants at this early stage,” Johannes Chan, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong told AFP. “The only reason is to put them behind bars now.” Jerome Cohen, a veteran expert on Chinese law at New York University, said the way the hearing was conducted risked damaging the reputation of the territory’s independent judiciary. – AFP