Hong Kong court denies bail to 32 pro-democracy activists

Activists accused of organising and participating in an unofficial primary poll that authorities said was part of a plan to ‘overthrow’ government.

The bail hearings have gone on late into the night for three consecutive days, causing several defendants to fall ill and be sent to hospital [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

A Hong Kong court has denied bail to 32 out of 47 pro-democracy activists charged under a Beijing-imposed national security law, ending a four-day marathon court hearing.

The group of activists was charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the law and detained on Sunday over their involvement in an unofficial primary election last year that authorities said was a plot to paralyse Hong Kong’s government.

The mass charges against the activists were the most sweeping action taken against the city’s pro-democracy camp since the national security law was implemented last June.

On Thursday evening, after hours of legal arguments from prosecutors and defence, chief magistrate Victor So ordered 32 members of the group to be returned to custody.

“The court does not find it has sufficient ground to believe that you will not continue to commit acts that endanger national security,” he told the court.

The remaining 15 defendants were granted bail with strict limitations but the prosecution immediately appealed.

As a result they must also return to custody but will be allowed to take their case to the city’s High Court within the next 48 hours

With the 32 activists remanded in custody until the next court hearing on May 31, it means that a majority of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures will now be in jail or in self-exile abroad amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

Bail proceedings for the activists began on Monday, often taking a full day and at times continuing into the early hours of the morning.

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.

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 had 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 activists, aged 23-64, are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial, non-binding primary poll last July that authorities said was part of a “vicious plot” to “overthrow” the government.

Supporters line up in the rain outside West Kowloon court in Hong Kong [File: Anthony Wallace/AFP]

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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies