By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret
HONGKONG – A landmark national security case involving 47 Hong Kong democrats was adjourned on Thursday to June 1-2, with many of the defendants having been in custody since February last year and facing the possibility of months more on remand.
The 47 were arrested on a charge of conspiracy to commit subversion after participating in an unofficial, non-binding and independently organised primary vote in 2020 to select candidates for a since-postponed city election.
Authorities said the vote was a “vicious plot” to subvert the government of the Chinese-ruled city.
The 47 were charged under a 2020 national security law that China imposed on the former British colony, which critics say threw into question the freedoms it enjoyed after returning to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula.
While the West has criticised the law as a tool to crush dissent, Chinese and Hong Kong authorities say it has brought stability to the Asian financial hub after major pro-democracy protests in 2019.
West Kowloon magistrate Peter Law adjourned the case of the 47. Hong Kong laws restrict reporting of pre-trial committal proceedings other than certain key details.
This week, High Court judge Esther Toh had indicated in a written judgement for a bail application for one of the defendants, Gary Fan, that at least 11 of the defendants intended to plead guilty.
She also noted in the judgement that she had “sympathy” for the long wait for the trial to start, which “militates against fairness” to Fan.
Thirty-four of the defendants, who include the young democracy campaigner Joshua Wong, have been in pre-trial custody for more than a year. Only 13 have been granted bail.
Toh said in a statement on Tuesday that the procedural developments in the case suggested “there will be a long delay before trial”.
She cited Fan’s defence lawyer, Margaret Ng, as saying the “earliest realistic trial date will be somewhere in mid-2023″.
Two of the defendants were granted bail that was later revoked after they were re-arrested on suspicion of making remarks endangering national security under the 2020 law, under which some offences are punishable by up to life in prison.
Toh, in a separate statement on Thursday, also set out her reasoning for denying bail to another defendant, trade union leader Carol Ng, saying she had “an international influence as a result of her trade union work”.