by Jerome Taylor and Su Xinqi
A marathon bail hearing entered its third day as dozens of Hong Kong democracy activists returned to court on Wednesday in a mass subversion prosecution that has reignited international concern over Beijing’s crackdown on dissent.
Police arrested 47 of the city’s best-known dissidents on Sunday for “conspiracy to commit subversion” in the broadest use yet of a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the city last year.
The defendants represent a broad cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition, from veteran former pro-democracy lawmakers to academics, lawyers, social workers and youth activists.
Beijing has moved to quash dissent in semi-autonomous Hong Kong after huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019.
With so many arrested at once, Hong Kong’s judiciary has struggled to deal with the sheer caseload as well as the legal vagaries of the broadly worded security law, which removes the presumption of bail for non-violent crimes.
Under the new security law — which Beijing imposed directly on the city last June — defendants may only be granted bail if they can persuade a court they no longer pose any kind of national security risk.
All those charged with a national security crime so far have been held on remand, despite agreeing to restrictive measures such as house arrest and making no public statements.
Prosecutors have asked the court to remand the group into custody for the next three months to allow police time to continue to build their case against them.
Lawyers for each defendant have spent the last two days pushing for bail, arguing late into the night.
‘Most subversion charges since Tiananmen’
The alleged offence for the 47 facing subversion charges was organising an unofficial primary election last summer to choose candidates for the city’s legislature, in the hopes that the pro-democracy bloc might take a majority and stymie government legislation.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials said this was an attempt to “overthrow” the city’s government, and therefore a threat to national security.
The first day’s hearing only ended in the small hours of the morning when one of the defendants collapsed from exhaustion. She and three other defendants — including one with heart disease — had to be taken to hospital.
During Tuesday’s hearing, lawyers and the defendants themselves complained they had barely had any sleep since the arrests on Sunday and had been unable to wash or change their clothes.
The group were back in the dock on Wednesday to hear argument for the legal teams of the last eight defendants that have yet to present their case.
Experts say the case is China’s largest subversion prosecution in decades, made possible by the recent expansion of mainland-style national security laws into Hong Kong.
“I think it’d be the largest batch of subversion cases since 1989,” Bing Ling, a professor of Chinese law at the University of Sydney, told AFP, referencing the aftermath of Beijing’s deadly Tiananmen crackdown when scores of student leaders were prosecuted and jailed.
The security law has been the spear tip of a multi-pronged crackdown over the last year, criminalising any act considered subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.
It has radically transformed Hong Kong’s relationship with the authoritarian mainland and outlawed much dissent in the once free-wheeling finance hub.
Critics, including many Western powers, have accused China of effectively outlawing opposition politics and shredding the freedoms and autonomy it promised Hong Kong could maintain ahead of the territory’s handover from the British in 1997.
China has defended its Hong Kong crackdown, saying it must restore stability after 2019’s protests, and ensure only “staunch patriots” are allowed to run the city.