Hong Kong court weighs bail petition of pro-democracy activists

After four days of marathon hearings, a court in Hong Kong is expected to decide on Thursday on the bail petitions of 47 pro-democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, in a landmark case following the most sweeping use yet of the national security law imposed on the city by Beijing.

Ahead of the hearing, family members of the detained activists and opposition politicians, as well as hundreds of their supporters, lined up early outside the West Kowloon court in a show of solidarity.

Au Pui-fun, the wife of a jailed social activist and former Legislative Council member, told reporters outside the court that she was not optimistic about the outcome of her husband’s case, adding that it was a “pre-written play”.

Labour Party politician Lee Cheuk-yan, another former Legislative Council member, was also outside the court, and was quoted on social media as saying that he felt “disoriented” about the legal system, and did not know what to expect next.

Candy, a 40-year-old housewife who started queueing early in the morning with her two children, said that her presence was her “declaration of support” for the activists.

“The kids wanted to come,” she told Reuters news agency.

The court is also considering the request by the media to lift reporting restrictions on the bail proceedings.

Foreign diplomats and rights groups are also closely monitoring the case as concerns mount over the vanishing space for dissent in the former British colony, which has taken a swift authoritarian turn since the imposition of the law in June 2020.

The hearings have gone on late into the night for three consecutive days, causing several defendants to fall ill and be sent to hospital.

Onus on defendants

A number of the defendants dismissed their legal representatives and planned to add more testimony to their submissions to the court. Hong Kong laws restrict media coverage of the content of bail hearings.

In contrast with the territory’s common law traditions, the new security law puts the onus on defendants to prove they will not pose a security threat if released on bail.

The men and women, aged 23-64, are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial primary poll last July that authorities said was part of a plan to “overthrow” the government.

The vote, in which not all of the accused were winners, was aimed at selecting the strongest opposition candidates for a legislative council election that the government later postponed, citing the coronavirus.

The detentions have been fiercely criticised by governments in the West, including in Britain and the United States.

Supporters of the security law, which punishes what it broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, say the legislation was necessary to restore stability in Hong Kong after months of pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Among those charged were the organiser of the primary election and former law professor Benny Tai, as well as prominent democracy campaigners Lester Shum, Joshua Wong, Owen Chow, Wu Chi-wai and Sam Cheung.

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