Thirty-six pro-democracy activists are still being held in Hong Kong jails more than a month after first appearing in court to face charges. The defendants are to remain in jail until their next planned court appearance on May 31. No trial date has been set.
Critics are denouncing the way the activists’ cases are being handled. They see the process as the latest attempt by China to sharply limit speech and other freedoms in Hong Kong.
The activists were arrested on charges related to a new national security law passed by the Chinese government last June. Critics say the law is meant to silence opposition in the former British territory.
In total, 47 pro-democracy activists were brought to court March 1 on charges of conspiracy to commit subversion. Eleven of them were permitted to leave jail after they were given bail.
The charges were related to an unofficial primary election the activists helped organize. The process was meant to choose the best candidates to win seats in Hong Kong’s legislative elections. Those elections were supposed to happen last September but have been postponed until December.
The situation surrounding the jailed defendants has worried many in Hong Kong. They say it is a clear example of how the national security law is making extreme changes to the city. The law punishes what it considers unlawful acts, such as subversion, terrorism and working with foreign forces, with up to life in prison.
The bail process is ongoing. In one of the latest court hearings, on April 14, former journalist and democratic lawmaker Claudia Mo was denied bail for a second time.
The hearings started at West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts on March 1. Over the next four days, the defendants had more than 40 hours of hearings. They were denied a change of clothes throughout and, at first, not permitted to shower. Ten were taken to the hospital, some suffering physical exhaustion.
In the courtroom next to the hearings, some family members and supporters cried as they watched through a live video link.
At least 12 of the defendants announced on social media that they would no longer be involved in politics. Some resigned from their jobs. Some removed their Facebook accounts, including four members of the pro-democracy Civic Party.
In an open letter published April 16, the four called for the party to separate. “Everyone’s peace and safety is what we care about deeply in our hearts,” the letter said.
Law experts and government critics say the long hearings are part of a plan to crush Hong Kong’s democracy movement after the protests of 2019.
Leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong have said the protests launched the city into a crisis and caused a serious security risk. On April 15, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam praised the national security law for “effectively restoring stability.”
The defendants’ situation is highly unusual in Hong Kong, an active judge and two retired judges told Reuters news agency. The city long took pride in the independence of its British-style judicial system. Now, the judges said, the long bail hearings have marked a real change from the territory’s common law tradition.
Simon Young is a lawyer and law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Of the defendants, he said, “We can ask whether it was necessary to charge everyone at the same time and process them all together.”
One of the retired Hong Kong judges expressed disapproval for how the hearings are progressing and the way the defendants are being treated.
Some in the territory said they agreed with the process, including the denial of bail for many of the defendants. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Holden Chow told Reuters he thinks the court has “rightly handled” the entire process.
However, the Hong Kong Bill of Rights states that detaining defendants should not be the general rule. The exception is when there are clear risks of a defendant committing more offenses or running away. But now, whenever there is a conflict, the national security law replaces all local laws in Hong Kong.
The new law means defendants could spend months detained before trials begin. One active judge told Reuters the bail hearings were a reminder of “show trials” used by China and other governments to mentally weaken political opponents publicly. The judge spoke on the condition that Reuters would not publish his or her name.
Over the past year, Hong Kong officials have disqualified candidates from public office and stopped protests. And they have jailed well-known activists like Joshua Wong and media businessman Jimmy Lai. China’s leaders are also now changing the city’s electoral system to ensure only people it considers "patriots" can govern Hong Kong.
The Chinese government did not answer requests from Reuters for comment.
The Hong Kong Department of Justice decides who will be charged. It said in a statement to Reuters that generally people are only charged if there is enough evidence to support a conviction. “And if it is in the public interest to do so,” the statement noted.
The document charging the 47 people says that the defendants’ main aim was to force the city’s chief executive to resign. Prosecutors have said the democracy movement’s primary election method was a violation of the national security law.
In comments to Reuters, the Hong Kong Judiciary said it was examining “the overall arrangements of handling cases involving a large number of litigants and observers at all levels of courts.” The examination was taking place with the goal of finding “improvement measures” to the process, it said.
While hearings have continued, the 36 jailed defendants have been given no information about when their trial might begin.
I’m Dan Friedell. And I’m Alice Bryant.
Reuters news agency reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.
Words in This Story
bail – n. the temporary release of an accused person awaiting trial, often on condition that a sum of money be paid to the court
conspiracy – n. a secret plan made by two or more people to do something that is harmful or illegal
commit – v. to do something that is illegal or harmful
subversion – n. the act of secretly trying to ruin or destroy a government or political system
exhaustion – n. the state of being extremely tired
pride – n. a feeling that you respect yourself and deserve to be respected by other people
patriot – n. a person who loves and strongly supports or fights for his or her country
prosecutor – n. a lawyer who represents the side in a court case that accuses a person of a crime and who tries to prove that the person is guilty
arrangement – n. a usually informal agreement
litigant – n. a person who is involved in a lawsuit