China – Hong Kong activists retreat as China-style justice comes to their city
‘Life within the walls’
After another night in lock-up, the defendants were brought back to the court on Wednesday morning for a third day.
Jeremy Tam, a former Civic Party lawmaker who has deleted his Facebook page, made a tearful plea for bail. Some relatives and journalists wiped their eyes with tissues.
In an audio message recorded before the bail hearings, Tam sounded wistful. “Everyone, please don’t worry about me. I will get used to life within the walls,” he said. His comments were posted on March 14 on the Facebook page of a diner he runs.
“I hope everyone will continue to support Three Meals Hong Kong,” Tam posted, referring to the Hong Kong-style diner, which opened in December. “I will deliver takeaway meals to you all again soon.”
Tam’s lawyer did not respond to questions from Reuters.
Outside, on the eighth floor of the courthouse, veteran democrat Lee Cheuk-yan sat dejected. “It’s very sad,” he said of his colleagues facing charges. “They’ve given up everything they’ve fought for,” he told Reuters.
Lee was himself in court that week in a separate case in which he was charged with unauthorised assembly stemming from a protest in 2019. On April 16, he was sentenced in that case and for a second charge of unauthorised assembly, and given a total of 14 months in jail.
Back in the courtroom, during the recess, some of the defendants seemed dazed.
Former Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai sat, head in hands, in a corner. Others flipped despondently through the pages of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, in which they were the headline. Joshua Wong, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent young activists, moved about whispering in the ears of lawyers and other democrats.
Two other defendants, Owen Chow and Lester Shum, were taken to hospital later that night. Reuters could not obtain details about their medical conditions.
Some Hong Kong activists say they fear the city’s legal system is beginning to resemble the administration of justice on the mainland, where the ruling Communist Party controls the courts and forces some high-profile defendants to read out public confessions. This tactic was used in Mao Zedong’s purges and more recently during Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.
One of the senior leaders ensnared in the anti-graft drive was a former People’s Liberation Army general, Guo Boxiong, who was jailed for life in 2016 on charges of taking bribes from people seeking promotions. Footage of the trial that was later released showed him reading out a confession saying his case had been dealt with “completely correctly.”
International rights groups say dissidents on the mainland are regularly jailed on national security grounds including subversion. They have little legal recourse in the courts, and are sometimes subjected to ill treatment and torture during detention, these groups say.
Chinese authorities have denied accusations of torture and say they abide by the rule of law.
Closed courts have been commonplace for politically sensitive cases in China, including in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The trials last month of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were charged with spying for overseas interests after being arrested in 2018, were held behind closed doors. The trials lasted a matter of hours. No verdict has been handed down in either case.
The national security law “has effectively restored stability in our society and helped Hong Kong get out of the shadow of violence.”
Kovrig and Spavor were arrested in China soon after Canadian police detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech company Huawei Technologies Co, on a U.S. warrant. Diplomats from 26 countries were prevented from attending the Kovrig trial in Beijing. Canada and the United States have criticised the proceedings as lacking transparency, and have called for an immediate end to their detention.
In the aftermath of the Hong Kong bail hearing, some of the defendants remained defiant. “I have become a prisoner sitting in the dock of this political case under the national security law,” Gwyneth Ho wrote in a post on her blog, called “Note from prison – how do I view myself in my current position?”
“Freedom of speech is the most important thing, and I will persist with it,” wrote Ho, who noted that she wasn’t able to change her clothes for five days.
Under the new national security law, Hong Kong’s leader effectively has the power to appoint judges to hear security cases, while trials for “complex” cases can be moved to the mainland, although that has not happened so far. Security officials can also now search premises, seize electronic devices, conduct surveillance and freeze assets without court authorisation, significantly expanding police powers.
“You see the sword of Damocles” that the mainland government “has over courts in Hong Kong,” said Cohen, the legal scholar. “If they don’t like the way these cases are handled, they’ll just take them into China.”
At 1 p.m. on Thursday, March 4, the fourth day of hearings, the bail submissions were finally completed. Outside the courtroom, supporters began chanting “release all political prisoners.”
It had been the longest bail hearing since Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China in 1997. Just before 8 p.m., the judge delivered his decision.
Judge So granted bail to 15 of the 47 defendants. Yang, the public prosecutor, immediately appealed the decision to release some of the defendants.
Judge So granted Yang’s appeal – and ordered all the defendants back into custody.
There were gasps in the adjacent court, where the relatives sat. Some started crying, others shouted.
Elsa, the foster mother of one of the defendants, social worker Hendrick Lui, knelt on the floor outside the court and wailed after hearing that Lui had been granted bail, only for it to be immediately revoked and for him to be taken back into custody.
“The rule of law is dead!” she screamed.
Wong and Mo, the youngest and eldest women defendants, were both denied bail. So was Gwyneth Ho.
The next day, the public prosecution dropped its objections to bail for four defendants, Clarisse Yeung, Lawrence Lau, Hendrick Lui and Mike Lam, and they were released on bail. Hong Kong’s Department of Justice did not say why the objections were dropped.
But the bail hearings are still continuing.
On March 13, Jeremy Tam appeared in Hong Kong’s High Court for another bail hearing. The judge, Esther Toh, overturned a decision by the lower court to grant him bail.
After the ruling, Tam looked towards his wife in the gallery and made a heart shape with his hands, then shook his head slowly. He is now one of the 36 defendants who will remain behind bars until their next scheduled court appearance on May 31, with no indication of when their trial might start.
Democracy in the Dock
By Reuters Staff
Design: Pete Hausler
Edited by Neil Fullick