Hong Kong democracy activists Joshua Wong, Benny Tai and dozens of other defendants pleaded guilty to subversion charges brought under Hong Kong’s draconian national security law after they took part in a democratic primary in the summer of 2020, local media reported.
In total, 29 of 47 defendants charged with “incitement to subvert state power” entered guilty pleas in a case which will likely be tried in front of three judges with no jury, with life imprisonment the maximum penalty under the charge.
The 18 other defendants — who included former Stand News journalist Gwyneth Ho and former lawmakers Lam Cheuk-ting, Leung Kwok-hung, Helena Wong and Ray Chan — will stand trial in the High Court.
Tai is seen as a mastermind behind the bid to win more than 35 seats by strategically selecting pro-democracy candidates for the 2020 Legislative Council (LegCo) election, and stands accused alongside former lawmaker Au Nok-hin of promoting the idea in mainstream and social media, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-backed Global Times newspaper reported.
“Along with the other defendants, Tai was in charge of allocating financial and logistical support for the illegal primaries,” the paper said.
Tai also came up with a strategy called “mutual destruction with the government,” lobbying Western countries to sanction Hong Kong and Chinese officials and “using filibuster tactics to paralyze LegCo operations in order to subvert state power,” the paper said.
The paper described Joshua Wong as “an infamous secessionist” who used to lobby for overseas sanctions against China, and for Hong Kong-related legislation in Washington.
It said the guilty pleas wouldn’t necessarily mean more lenient sentences, and quoted CCP legal adviser Louis Chen as saying that Tai and Wong would likely receive “very long prison sentences.”
Under the national security law, the minimum jail term for those deemed main offenders in cases of a “serious nature,” is 10 years’ imprisonment, with a maximum term of life imprisonment.
Those deemed to have “actively participated” in an offense will likely face sentences of three-10 years.
Less active participants may receive lesser punishments up to a maximum of three years’ imprisonment, the law says.
The 29 cases involving guilty pleas will be handed over to the Hong Kong High Court for sentencing in September and November. Former LegCo members Claudia Mo, Eddie Chu and Alvin Yeung also pleaded guilty, the paper said, describing the primaries as “anti-government” because they sought to win a majority of seats in LegCo.
The pleas were entered during a hearing at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on Thursday, and made public after the lifting of a reporting ban, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, media reports quoted Hong Kong’s justice department as saying that the trial of detained Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be conducted with no jury, along with that of dozens of others, local media reported.
“Inadequate and unconvincing’
Three national security judges will preside without a jury over cases involving Jimmy Lai, and one concerning a primary election procedure involving dozens of pro-democracy figures, with officials citing juror safety, the Standard newspaper reported.
“The purpose of the relevant provisions that stipulate the arrangement for a case to be tried by a panel of three judges is precisely to ensure a fair trial and the due administration of justice,” the department of justice said in a statement on the official website of the Hong Kong government.
“The DoJ does not comment on individual cases that are subject to ongoing legal proceedings,” it said.
Chan Ka Wai, chief executive of the political party Third Side, said the decision not to hold a jury trial was made in an “unacceptably casual” manner.
“If they can’t explain [their reasons] to the public, at the very least they should present them to the court,” Chan said.
Eric Lai, a researcher in Hong Kong law at the Asian Law Center, Georgetown University, said the justification for the no-jury ruling on grounds of safety was “inadequate and unconvincing.”
“The Hong Kong High Court has been running effective jury trials for more than 100 years, and there have been a number of politically controversial cases in the past,” Lai said.
“There was no evidence to suggest that there were any threats to jurors or their families,” he said.
He said the decision wasn’t made by a court or judge, but by the executive branch of government.
“This shows that the national security law confers greater power on the executive to influence judicial processes and mechanisms,” Lai told RFA. “It’s in the best interest of the CCP to eliminate juries to reduce the uncertainty of the trial outcome.”
“If there were a jury in the trial of the 47 that didn’t agree with the prosecution’s argument, and found them all not guilty, it would be a huge embarrassment to the regime,” he said.
He said the national security law, in providing for cases to be tried in front of a panel of judges, had effectively set up an alternative court outside of the city’s common law judicial system.