A judge in Hong Kong has kept 47 pro-democracy activists charged under the city’s draconian national security law in custody after a marathon four-day hearing derided as chaotic and farcical.
Thirty-two defendants were denied bail by the chief magistrate, Victor So, while 15 were granted bail but still kept in custody after government prosecutors said they would appeal against that decision.
The group were charged on Sunday with conspiracy to commit subversion in relation to an unofficial primary poll held last year, in the most sweeping action taken against the city’s pro-democracy camp since the national security law was implemented last June.
So processed all 47 cases in a single bail hearing that began on Monday with a session that ran until 3am, and continued through the week. He also denied applications to lift reporting restrictions, meaning only the ruling and relevant names can be published, not arguments made for or against the granting of bail.
With the 47 remanded in custody, a majority of Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy figures will now be in jail or in self-exile abroad amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
There were emotional scenes at the West Kowloon court as some sobbed inside the chambers and others hugged outside. One person stood outside the court with a yellow umbrella, a symbol of the democracy movement, and a banner that said: “Free all political prisoners.”
“We’re not surprised at all that today’s bail application failed,” said Po-ying Chan, the wife of one of the prominent defendants who was denied bail, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung. “This proved that under the NSL [national security law], the legal system has been twisted and turned upside down.”
The 15 defendants granted bail are expected to appear for another hearing within 48 hours at the high court. For the others, the case was adjourned until 31 May.
Prosecutors had sought at least three months’ adjournment to allow them time to investigate further, and opposed bail for any defendant. The defence objected, questioning why charges had been laid and defendants jailed if the case was so far off readiness.
The wording of the national security law makes it extremely difficult for anyone charged under it to be granted bail. The media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is facing trial for alleged foreign collusion in a separate case, has been in and out of court challenging his bail denial, so far unsuccessfully.
Fifty-five people were arrested over the primary poll in January, drawing international condemnation, and scepticism even from some pro-Beijing politicians, who noted that primary polls were a common feature of both sides in Hong Kong politics.
Authorities alleged that the 47 had schemed to select candidates who could win a majority of the 70 legislative council seats and then indiscriminately block legislation to “paralyse” parliament and force the resignation of the chief executive. Authorities have not said whether they intend to charge the remaining eight, who include the American lawyer John Clancey.
The processing of the case has been widely criticised as chaotic, farcical and judicially unfair. Over the course of the four-day hearing, five defendants were taken to hospital by ambulance and several complained about a lack of access to their lawyers.
Reports said some defendants were back in their cells for less than three hours on Tuesday morning after the 3am finish of Monday’s hearing before being returned to court, and lawyers had not had time to shower or change.
By Wednesday evening, several defendants had dropped their lawyers, wanting to make further submissions on their own behalf, which were heard on Thursday. The contents of their statements are covered by reporting restrictions.
“The court system should never have arranged such a chaotic judicial review that has made Hong Kong’s formerly revered judicial system look like the willing instrument of the police and prosecution,” Prof Jerome Cohen, an expert on China at New York University’s School of Law, wrote in a blog on Thursday.
More than 1,000 supporters gathered outside the court on the first day calling for the release of the prisoners and chanting now illegal protest slogans. Police issued a number of fines for breaches of pandemic gathering laws. Among those in attendance were foreign diplomats and rights groups who are closely monitoring the case amid mounting concerns that Hong Kong’s judicial system is being degraded.
“We’ve not seen something like this before. It’s usually very fast … It’s very strange,” David Costello, Ireland’s consul general for Hong Kong, who was at the court, said of the length of the hearings. “It’s a test of what’s going to happen in Hong Kong.”
Foreign governments and rights groups have condemned the moves to prosecute the group, but Hong Kong and Beijing authorities have remained unapologetic.
On Thursday the rightwing US thinktank the Heritage Foundation said it would no longer include Hong Kong in its index of economic freedom, because “developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that [Hong Kong’s economic] policies are ultimately controlled by Beijing”. Hong Kong had topped the list for 25 years up to 2019.
Reuters contributed to this report