Sedition trial begins for closed Hong Kong news site editors

FILE - Editor of Stand News Patrick Lam, center, is escorted by police officers into a van after they searched evidence at his office in Hong Kong on Dec. 29, 2021. A sedition trial opened in Hong Kong on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022, for the online media outlet's acting editor-in-chief Lam and editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

HONG KONG (AP) — A sedition trial opened in Hong Kong on Monday for two former top editors of a shuttered online media outlet who have been detained without bail for 10 months.

Stand News editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen and acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam were arrested last December during a crackdown on dissent following widespread anti-government protests in 2019.

Stand News was one of the city's last news media that openly criticized the government after the closure of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, whose jailed founder Jimmy Lai faces collusion charges under a sweeping National Security Law enacted in 2020.

Ahead of the opening statements, the judge heard arguments from both sides about which articles could be included as part of the prosecution's case and whether it was necessary to prove the defendants had seditious intent.

The defense argued that the law requires prosecutors to bring charges within six months after any allegedly seditious articles are published, and that 10 out of the 17 articles which the prosecution referred to did not fall under that time frame.

But the prosecution insisted the case was about conspiracy so the time limit was not applicable. The judge said he would issue a decision in the dispute on Tuesday.

Unlike Lai, Chung and Lam were charged under a colonial-era sedition law that has been used increasingly to snuff out critical voices in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Hong Kong was a British colony until its return to China in 1997.

Best Pencil (Hong Kong) Ltd., the holding company for Stand News, faces the same charge of conspiracy to publish seditious materials. It had no representatives at the trial.

Former Stand News reporters and veteran local journalists were among the spectators at the trial. Chung and Lam waved at their friends in the courtroom.

Sedition is punishable by a maximum jail term of two years and a fine of 5,000 Hong Kong dollars (about $640) for a first offense, and three years for a subsequent offense. The trial is expected to last 20 days.

Stand News shut down in December after the arrests and a high-profile police raid at its office. Armed with a warrant to seize relevant journalistic materials under the National Security Law, more than 200 officers participated in the search. But Chung and Lam and the company were not charged under the security law.

Months earlier, police raided the offices of Apple Daily and seized boxes of materials and computer hard drives.

Hong Kong fell more than 60 places to 148th place in Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index released in May. The global media watchdog cited the closure of the two outlets in its rating.