Hong Kong national security law: defence lawyers complain of clients’ ‘sheer torment’ as bail hearings for 47 accused opposition activists drag on

Brian Wong
·6-min read

Hong Kong’s biggest mass prosecution of opposition politicians and activists under the national security law dragged on for a second straight marathon session of bail hearings throughout Tuesday, with defence lawyers complaining their clients were being subjected to “sheer torment” and exhaustion.

The bail applications of eight of the 47 defendants, charged with subversion over an unofficial primary election last year, had yet to be heard at West Kowloon Court following an eight-hour session on Tuesday that ended at 10.35pm.

Half of those in the dock were allowed to leave early after the presiding judge said he feared the defendants were not getting enough rest after spending 10 hours in Monday’s session.

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Defence counsel Brian Tsui Ho-chuen, acting for defendants Fergus Leung Fong-wai and Tam Tak-chi, told the court most defendants could get little to no rest during the adjournment early on Tuesday morning.

Tsui said the male defendants, for instance, were taken from court at 5am before reaching Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre one hour later, but they left there again at 8am as prison officers brought them back to the dock.

“To my clients, this is sheer torment,” the lawyer said.

Defendant Lawrence Lau Wai-chung, a barrister who has appeared for the defence in various protest-related proceedings, apologised when he made an oral submission on his own bail application: “I am very sorry for my shabby clothes and messy appearance, as I have not bathed, washed my head and changed my clothes for three days.”

He added: “I came to realise that in depriving one’s freedom, they are also deprived of their personal hygiene, their looks and their self-confidence.”

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Some of the defendants appeared drained as they remained seated in the dock. Legal scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who devised the primary election, could be seen drowsing shortly after arriving at the hearing on Tuesday evening. He had attended a separate hearing at the Court of Appeal earlier in the day.

Defence lawyers also expressed concerns about their clients not being able to change their clothes since being detained on Sunday, adding families of the accused had been unable to deliver garments because of complicated procedures in prison.

Chief Magistrate Victor So Wai-tak said he could only dispose of all the applications by Wednesday given the need to allow the defendants to rest, before allowing those who felt tired to leave the dock early while their lawyers continued to make submissions. He further agreed to start Wednesday’s session at noon to allow time for the defendants to clean themselves.

“I’m pretty confident that even if we cannot finish today, we can tomorrow,” the magistrate said.

Prosecutors have requested the court deny bail to the 47, including former lawmakers from the pan-democratic camp. The accused were first arrested in January for taking part in what authorities alleged was a subversive plot to seize control of the legislature with the ultimate aim of paralysing the government and toppling the city’s leader.

Chief Magistrate Victor So. Photo: Handout
Chief Magistrate Victor So. Photo: Handout

Western governments slammed the prosecutions as an attempt to silence dissent, and demanded the immediate release of the defendants.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Department of Justice hit back by calling the request “a disrespect of our judicial and legal systems” and an attempt to “meddle in” the city’s affairs.

The opening session of the bail proceedings started at 4pm on Monday and ended at nearly 3am the next day. Four defendants were sent to hospital suffering from fatigue, and only some were able to attend the second session on Tuesday afternoon.

The sessions were adjourned for short periods several times throughout the two days, either for prosecutors to prepare the necessary documents or for defence lawyers to meet and obtain instructions from their clients.

Lawyers spent up to an hour on each application, elaborating how their clients qualified for release ahead of trial under the stringent threshold for granting bail under the security law, which provides that it should only be allowed in exceptional circumstances.

Legal scholar Benny Tai had two separate hearings to attend. Photo: Winson Wong
Legal scholar Benny Tai had two separate hearings to attend. Photo: Winson Wong

In stark contrast to Monday’s hearing, which had drawn hundreds of the defendants’ supporters, many of whom chanted anti-government slogans while queuing outside the West Kowloon Court building, those waiting at the entrance on Tuesday numbered in the dozens, and signs and chants were absent. Most were dressed in black, the signature colour of the 2019 protest movement.

Police had raised warning flags on Monday, notifying those in the crowd they could be in violation of the national security law or coronavirus social-distancing measures. Over the course of the day, officers fined 42 people for breaking Covid-19 rules.

The force stepped up its presence on Tuesday, with police stationed around the block and at a nearby railway station, where officers could be seen stopping and searching passers-by.

Police revealed that a lawyer from a team representing some of the 47 defendants had been arrested on suspicion of offences including obstructing officers.

Joakim Ladeborn, deputy consul general from the Sweden consulate, was among those in the queue outside court on Tuesday morning, after failing to get in on Monday with other EU colleagues.

According to Ladeborn, only British diplomats managed to enter.

“It was a long night … That must be very exhausting for everyone,” he said. “I was surprised that so many people were in line with us [on Monday]. It shows that people are concerned [about the case].”

Emily Lau Wai-hing, former chairwoman of the Democratic Party, blasted the previous night’s prolonged legal proceedings, citing the fainting of defendant Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying after more than nine hours in court.

“I thought in Hong Kong, we always have respect for due process. So if you cramp 47 people into the courtroom it’s going to take time,” she said.

Lau added that it was “ridiculous” for the authorities to lock up the defendants even though they were requesting three more months to investigate.

“That’s not Hong Kong. It’s crazy,” she said. “The whole world is watching, they can see how ridiculous it has become.”

Vanessa Lai, 40, took leave from work on Tuesday to listen to the hearing in a show of solidarity with the 47 activists. “If it is possible, I will come here again tomorrow to show my support.”

Outside court for the second straight day, To Chi-kuen, 49, said: “Of course, it would be definitely better if we have more people coming here to show their support. But we should not feel upset that there are fewer supporters here today.”

In a separate development, the Hospital Authority confirmed on Tuesday that Winnie Yu Wai-ming, one of the 47 charged, had been suspended from duty following her prosecution. Yu chairs the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, which called for a strike amid the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Authority spokesman Dr Lau Ka-hin said the decision was made in accordance with established human resources procedures.

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