Hong Kong democracy activists back in court for marathon bail hearing

Pro-democracy activisits in outside the West Kowloon court in Hong Kong on March 1, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG/LONDON (AFP, XINHUA) - Dozens of Hong Kong democracy activists charged with subversion returned to court on Tuesday (March 2) to complete a marathon bail hearing that was adjourned overnight when four defendants were rushed to hospital after hours of legal wrangling.

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.

Hundreds of supporters gathered outside a courthouse on Monday for the first post-charge bail hearing, chanting democracy slogans - a rare resurgence of defiance in a city where protest has been all but outlawed over the last year.

Normally such a bail hearing might take little more than a couple of hours. But the court 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.

The court sat on and off for some 15 hours throughout Monday as the prosecution called for the activists to be held in custody until the next hearing in three months' time while the defence tried to pursue bail.

An adjournment only came in the small hours of Tuesday morning after one of the defendants, Clarisse Yeung, collapsed and was rushed to hospital. Three other defendants were subsequently taken to hospital in ambulances.

At the time of the adjournment, less than half of the bail hearings for the 47 defendants had been heard, an Agence France-Presse reporter in court said.

The defendants were then taken in handcuffs to a nearby detention centre for a few hours' sleep before returning once more to court on Tuesday morning.

Yeung released a statement on her Facebook account on Tuesday morning saying she fainted after receiving no food for 12 hours and was being treated in hospital for low blood pressure. The three others who fell ill were also not in court.

High bar for bail

Beijing is struggling to quash dissent in semi-autonomous Hong Kong after huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019.

The security law has been the spear tip of that crackdown, criminalising any act considered to be 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.

One major area of change is bail.

Under the new law, defendants may only be granted bail if they can persuade a court they no longer pose any kind of national security risk.

Before Monday's hearing, all those charged with a national security crime had been held on remand, despite agreeing to restrictive measures such as house arrest and making no public statements.

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.

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.

"This trial has nothing to do with law, it merely shows how the Chinese Communist party nakedly abuses its powers and uses the courts to demonstrate that power," Mr Nathan Law, a Hong Kong democracy activist who fled to Britain, said on Facebook on Tuesday.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said: "Political participation should never be a crime. This is yet another example of how the national security law is being used to stifle dissent, not to improve security."

China has dismissed criticism of its Hong Kong crackdown, saying it must restore stability after 2019's protests, and ensure only staunch patriots are allowed to run Hong Kong.

Beijing's national legislature convenes this week for an annual meeting where it is expected to unveil new measures that will further tighten the leash on Hong Kong.

Beijing's rejection

Western nations have accused Beijing of using its crackdown to shred the freedoms that were promised under the "one country, two systems" framework when the former British colony was returned to China.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab slammed the charging of the dissidents as "deeply disturbing".

Referring to the national security law, Mr Raab wrote on Twitter: "It shows in the starkest terms the NSL being used to eliminate political dissent rather than restore order - contrary to what the Chinese Government promised."

The Chinese embassy in Britain on Monday expressed grave concern over and strong opposition to Mr Raab's remarks about Hong Kong.

"The UK side's remarks confuse right and wrong, and interfere in China's internal affairs and judicial sovereignty. The Chinese side expresses its grave concern and strong opposition," said a spokesman for the embassy in a statement.

The statement said the handling of the charging of the 47 people by the Hong Kong judicial authorities is in line with the law and brooks no distortion or discredit.

"China upholds the rule of law. Hong Kong is a society under the rule of law where no one is above the law," it said, noting that the 47 people in the relevant case organised, plotted and took part in last year's so-called 35+ primary election and mutual destruction plot aimed at paralysing the Hong Kong government and pushing the city into the abyss of chaos.

The allegation that the national security law for Hong Kong violates the Sino-British Joint Declaration is a non-issue, the statement said, adding that the Chinese government governs Hong Kong in accordance with the Constitution of China and the Basic Law of Hong Kong, not the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Hong Kong affairs, the statement emphasised, are purely China's internal affairs and brook no external interference in any form. It added that the Chinese government remains unwavering in its determination to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests, and to oppose any external interference.

"China urges the UK to respect the facts and the rule of law, discard its double standards and political manipulation, view the National Security Law for the Hong Kong and the handling of the case by the relevant authorities in accordance with law from an objective and fair perspective, immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs, stop interfering in China's internal affairs and judicial sovereignty, and stop going further down the wrong path," it said.

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