By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret
HONGKONG – A closely monitored national security trial involving 47 Hong Kong democracy campaigners charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, most of whom have been in custody since March, has been adjourned till March next year, a judge ruled on Monday.
Magistrate Peter Law adjourned the next hearing till March 4, after making directions for the translation of nearly 10,000 pages of documentary evidence by year end. Hong Kong laws bar media from publishing most details of pre-trial proceedings.
The 47, who include opposition politicians, are among more than 150 people arrested under a national security law that Beijing imposed on the former British colony last year that critics say erodes the freedoms promised when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials deny the charge and say the law has returned order to Hong Kong which was hit by months of sometimes violent pro-democracy, anti-China protests in 2019.
The 47, of whom only 14 have been released on bail, were arrested on charges of participating in an unofficial, non-binding and independently organised primary vote last year to select candidates for a since-postponed city election, which authorities say was a “vicious plot” to subvert the government.
Law extended bail for all 14 until the next hearing.
Diplomats and rights groups are closely watching the case amid mounting concerns over Hong Kong’s judicial independence, which is seen as one of the pillars of its financial success.
Authorities have repeatedly said the judiciary is independent and that it is upholding the rule of law. They have also said prosecutions are independent, based on evidence and had no relation with the background or profession of the suspects.
Bail hearings in March for the 47 went on for four days and dragged late into the night. Several of the defendants became ill and most of their appeals for bail have been denied.
The security law sets a high threshold for defendants seeking bail to demonstrate they would not break the law, a departure from common law practice, which puts the onus on prosecutors to make their case for detention.
Reasons for denying bail included unanswered emails from the U.S. Consulate and WhatsApp messages with foreign journalists, which were taken as proof there was a risk that defendants could endanger national security if released on bail.
The protracted hearings and the reasons for rejecting bail have stunned diplomats and rights groups, who see it as a dramatic display of the city’s authoritarian turn.