Hong Kong court grants bail to 15 of 47 democracy activists charged with subversion

Supporters of democracy activists line up outside the West Kowloon court building in Hong Kong on March 4, 2021.
Supporters of democracy activists line up outside the West Kowloon court building in Hong Kong on March 4, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - A Hong Kong court on Thursday (March 4) granted bail to around a third of 47 democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, as the case draws widespread criticism that Beijing is using a national security law to crush the city's opposition.

The marathon bail proceedings started on Monday in a landmark case after the most sweeping use yet of the city's national security law, which punishes its most serious charges, including subversion, with up to life in prison.

Foreign diplomats and rights groups are 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 have gone on late into the night for three consecutive days, causing several defendants to fall ill and be taken to the hospital. This has raised concerns among rights groups and some foreign diplomats over the treatment of the activists.

Hong Kong laws restrict media coverage of the content of bail hearings. An appeal to lift those restrictions in the interests of transparency was rejected by the court on Thursday.

In contrast with the global financial hub'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 to 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.

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.

Hong Kong's Department of Justice has said no one should interfere with independent prosecutorial decisions, adding it "undermines the rule of law".

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 it is necessary to restore stability in Hong Kong after months of pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Among those charged were prominent democracy campaigners Lester Shum, Joshua Wong, Owen Chow, Wu Chi Wai and Sam Cheung.

Hundreds of people gathered at the court to show their support for the defendants, though the numbers were much lower than on Monday, when about 1,000 supporters chanted democracy slogans in scenes reminiscent of 2019.