Hong Kong trial of 47 pro-democracy activists delayed for 11 weeks

Prosecutors have been granted another months-long delay to the trial of 47 pro-democracy politicians, activists, and campaigners in Hong Kong who held pre-election primaries declared illegal under its sweeping national security law.

A court on Thursday was originally expected to hear an application to transfer the case to a higher court with powers to order longer jail sentences, but prosecutors instead requested an 11-week adjournment, saying they needed more time to prepare, local media reported.

The 47 individuals were among 55 arrested by national security police on 6 January, and include civil society members, social workers, teachers and former pro-democracy legislators who had represented Hong Kong constituents for decades.

The majority have been in jail since at least late February, when a days-long hearing, which heard claims that defendants had been denied showers and rests, and that four had been taken to hospital, resulted in all but 12 being denied bail.

The group is facing charges of conspiracy to commit subversion under the national security law for holding unofficial primary polls in July 2020, ahead of a since-postponed general election. Primaries are not a formal part of Hong Kong’s election process, are non-binding and have been held by various political sides, including pro-establishment parties.

But the pan-democratic event was seen as an unofficial statement on the government, after a year of mass protests and a subsequent crackdown, and an estimated 600,000 people turned out to vote for candidates. Beijing declared the event illegal, and six months later Hong Kong authorities used the national security law to arrest all candidates, organisers and staff involved.

The national security law was imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing just 10 days before the primary, outlawing various acts as secession, subversion, foreign collusion and terrorism, and has been widely criticised as overly broad, draconian and for being used as a weapon against dissent. More than 128 people have been arrested, and at least 65 charged under the law.

Only one national security trial has begun in earnest, and proceedings are being closely watched amid concerns that Hong Kong’s long-respected judiciary is being eroded amid the crackdown.

In several cases prosecutors have sought and been granted a transfer to a higher court that would allow much harsher sentences of up to life in prison if convicted.

On Wednesday the court transferred the case of the activist Andy Li, who has been charged with foreign collusion, to the high court. Last month the same request was granted for the foreign collusion trial of the media mogul and activist Jimmy Lai. Lai is serving sentences for protest-related activities totalling 20 months.

The adjournment to 23 September by the chief magistrate, Victor So, before a packed courtroom including media and foreign diplomats means all but the 12 bailed defendants will remain in jail.

The national security law reverses the onus of proof regarding bail, requiring defendants to convince the judge they would not endanger national security if released. In at least one bail case – that of the former legislator Claudia Mo – private communications with foreign journalists were cited as evidence the 64-year-old, who has no criminal record, could potentially offend again.

The crackdown by Hong Kong authorities on opposition and dissent has broadened in recent months, forcing the closure of the popular pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily – founded and owned by Lai – and the arrest or charging of several editorial employees, including its editor-in-chief, with foreign collusion offences.

This week more pro-democracy district councillors reportedly resigned following reports in local media that as many as 200 could be disqualified for past “unpatriotic” behaviour and their salaries recouped, even if they do comply with a new requirement that they swear an oath of allegiance.

Some national security court hearings, including the February bail hearing and Li’s appearance on Wednesday, have been subject to reporting restrictions.