HONG KONG -- Dozens of leading pro-democracy politicians and activists in Hong Kong were sent to jail on Thursday after being denied bail over a subversion charge under the national security law, ending a four-day marathon hearing that marks the largest political crackdown by far in the city.
A total of 32 defendants were denied bail on grounds that they are likely to continue to commit acts endangering national security, the West Kowloon Magistracy ruled Thursday evening.
Meanwhile, 15 of the defendants were granted bail under stringent conditions, but prosecutors immediately appealed. This means they are remanded in custody until the appeals are heard, within 48 hours.
As the decisions were handed down, people chanted "political criminals are not guilty, Hong Kongers never die," and "five demands, not one less" -- slogans that proliferated during the 2019 pro-democracy movement.
The next hearing is scheduled for May 31.
The accused, including prominent former lawmakers and incumbent district councilors who represent a wide spectrum of Hong Kong's democratic opposition, could spend years in custody before going to trial -- effectively wiping out the entire opposition camp in the city.
The 47 defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion by organizing and participating in an unofficial primary in July 2020 that drew more than 600,000 voters to choose opposition legislative candidates. The official legislative poll was ultimately postponed until September 2021 as the government cited coronavirus concerns.
Prosecutors alleged that the 47 people, aged 23 to 64, had been "seriously interfering in, disrupting or undermining the performance of duties and functions" of the Hong Kong government, by attempting to seize control of the city's legislature and paralyze government operations, according to a court document.
Ahead of the hearing, many of the defendants quit their political groups to boost their chances of winning bail. Their remarks in court, however, cannot be reported under Hong Kong's statutory restrictions on media reporting. Defense lawyers had earlier applied for exemptions to this rule, arguing that it would be in the interest of justice, but the magistrate expressed concerns that the move would prejudice future trials if case details were made public at this stage.
Hundreds of opposition supporters carrying yellow umbrellas and dressed in black rallied outside the court until nighttime, defying police warnings that they too could be arrested under the security law.
A 68-year-old retiree by the name of Leung secured a ticket to the courthouse at noon after lining up from 7 a.m. "It's the first time for me the attend a court hearing. I want to be here to show my support," he said. "I don't understand why trying to win an election is a crime."
Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy politician and a longtime companion of the defendants, said he is bewildered by the judiciary system in Hong Kong nowadays.
"Things that we believed to be OK now become problematic ... we thought the primary election was legal, sensible and reasonable, but now it's breaching the security law," he said, urging fellow Hong Kongers not to give up despite uncertainties ahead.
The case was heard by Chief Magistrate Victor So Wai-tak, one of the designated judges appointed by chief executive Carrie Lam to handle national security cases.
Although Hong Kong's common law-based legal system traditionally requires the prosecution to prove its case, defendants need to show they would not be a national security threat if released on bail under the security law. This case has been seen as a key test for Hong Kong's independent judicial system, which was inherited from the British colonial era.
The U.S., European Union and U.K. have all denounced the prosecution and called for the immediate release of the democracy campaigners.
A total of 100 people have been arrested so far under the national security law since it took effect last June, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who has been repeatedly denied bail.
The law, seen by critics as undermining Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" governance framework, imposes criminal penalties for acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Suspects can be extradited to mainland China for trial and imprisoned for life.