Hong Kong Court Lifts Reporting Ban on National Security Case for 47 Democracy Activists

Hong Kong Court Lifts Reporting Ban on National Security Case for 47 Democracy Activists
Queue tapes at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts, in Hong Kong, on Aug. 17, 2022. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

HONG KONG—A Hong Kong court lifted restrictions on Thursday on reporting pre-trial proceedings of a landmark national security case involving 47 pro-democracy campaigners that has dragged on for more than a year.

The decision comes one day after the lifting of a reporting restriction for another national security case involving a civil society group behind Hong Kong's annual candlelight vigils commemorating victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

The lifting of the reporting restrictions was seen as a breakthrough by some activists. It is the first time reporting will be allowed for pre-trial hearings for a national security case in Hong Kong.

Magistrate Peter Law, who had rejected previous applications to lift the reporting ban, did so on Thursday after being ordered to by a High Court judge in the interests of "open justice."

"It is a fundamental principle of criminal justice ... the public has the right to scrutinize whatever the court is doing," one of the defendants, Gwyneth Ho, told the court in a July hearing.

Since the 47 democracy campaigners were arrested in a city-wide dawn raid in February 2021, the case has been repeatedly delayed as prosecutors requested more time to prepare, with only 13 of the defendants granted bail.

The campaigners have been accused of a conspiracy to commit subversion, after participating in an unofficial, non-binding primary election in 2020.

Government prosecutor Andy Lo had alleged the activists tried to cause an "acute crisis" and to paralyze government.

So far, 29 of the 47 have pleaded guilty, including legal scholar Benny Tai and activist Joshua Wong. Eighteen are pleading not guilty, including Gwyneth Ho, Owen Chow, and Gordon Ng.

Despite the decision, some aspects of the proceedings, including bail hearings, will remain unreportable. Law also refused to clarify whether a preliminary inquiry initiated by Ng, to ascertain the strength of the prosecution's case evidence before trial, would be reportable.

While the full trial date hasn't been set, Hong Kong Justice Secretary Paul Lam has already ordered the case to be tried without a jury, citing a "real risk" that justice might be impaired, according to a document seen by Reuters. He also cited an unspecified "involvement of foreign factors" as a reason.

The trial will instead be heard by three judges designated by Hong Kong's leader to handle national security cases.

"A hearing without a jury is unjust," activist Owen Chow shouted at the end of the hearing on Thursday.

Reporting Restriction Lifted on Another National Security Case

A Hong Kong court on Wednesday lifted a reporting restriction on a landmark national security case involving a now disbanded group that used to organize candlelight vigils on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The decision follows a ruling by High Court judge Alex Lee this month, overturning a ruling by lower court magistrate Peter Law who had blocked applications to allow open reporting of pre-trial proceedings—known as committal hearings.

The ban was lifted following a legal challenge by one of the defendants; Chow Hang-tung, 37, who had argued full reporting must be allowed in the interests of "open justice".

In lifting the restriction, Law dismissed arguments from the prosecutor, including that public debate from reporting might affect the course of justice.

"Hong Kong is a civilized place ... with the rule of law," he said. "This public debate will not affect the judge's decision."

Law said certain limitations could be imposed on future hearings.

The case involves a group called the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China and three of its former leaders: Lee Cheuk-yan, 65, Chow Hang-tung, 37, and Albert Ho, 70, who have been charged with so-called subversion of state power under the national security law.

Since the three were arrested and charged last September, they have been repeatedly denied bail and nothing but basic details from numerous court hearings have been reported.

Law had previously declined to lift the ban, saying reporting could put "mental pressure" on witnesses. Lee disputed that, saying Law had "erred" in his decision and that reporting should be allowed in the interests of "open justice."

In lifting the reporting block, Law dismissed arguments from the prosecutor that some of the hearings should still be subject to closed-door restrictions, including a preliminary inquiry.

The preliminary inquiry, at which prosecutors say they will present 16 boxes of documents and 200 hours of video footage going back to 1989, will decide if the case should proceed to a full trial in the High Court.

The alliance disbanded last September after the arrests of its leaders and a freeze on its assets.

Chow is in prison for two unauthorized assembly cases linked to candlelight vigils in 2020 and 2021 on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. She also faces a separate national security charge related to a refusal to submit information from the alliance to the police.

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