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Reporter's notebook: The court case that marked Hong Kong's fall

Love and hope persist amid unforgiving crackdown on democratic movement

People wait outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts in Hong Kong on March 4. (Photo by Michelle Chan)

HONG KONG -- After a marathon four-day hearing, 47 pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong were kept in jail after being charged with subversion under Beijing's new sweeping national security law for the city. Their crime? Trying to win a majority in the city's legislature by organizing and participating in a primary poll, in what the prosecutors deem an attempt to "topple" the local government.

On March 4 -- the day when the security law-designated judge was expected to hand down bail decision, I used my commute to the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts to sort the names of the defendants in line with their assigned numbers, from D1 to D47. I did not want to lose track in a jam-packed courtroom crowded with Hong Kong's best-known opposition politicians and activists, including scholars, lawyers, veteran lawmakers, social workers, and human rights advocates.

Hundreds of black-clad opposition supporters arrived before me, enduring the early morning chilly wind and drizzle for a coveted public ticket to the courthouse, forming long lines that snaked around the building. Many carried banners and chanted slogans reminiscent of the 2019 protests, bravely breaking the silence and fear that has engulfed the city since the security law took effect.

Such a scene is rare nowadays as a coronavirus gathering ban has deterred citizens from taking to the streets, and the security legislation has outlawed some popular protest slogans. Nonetheless, people showed up in support of the democracy campaigners.

Some tried to overcome that fear by referring to history. A middle-aged woman in the line was reading a book about Winston Churchill's years in enforced exile. "Churchill was not apprehensive of the Nazis in defense of liberal democracy... I find it very empowering. I believe the darkest hours for all of us will pass one day."

A few steps away from her was a student armed with French philosopher Albert Camus' work, The Rebel. "It's all about resistance," she told me with a bitter smile.

Tsz Ning, a former publisher bored with the long wait, took a stroll around the block and photographed the books others were reading. "It surprised me that so many people were reading social science and literature books," she said. "I guess in challenging times, people tend to have more reflections on values... and in general, more thoughts about our world."

Supporters of the democracy campaigners read books on history and resistance outside the courtroom in Hong Kong. (Photos by Michelle Chan and Galileo Cheng)

The scene outside the court was reminiscent of the protests in 2019, not only because of the rebellious slogans or dress codes, but also the atmosphere of togetherness and altruism. Without any leaders, people self-organized to distribute raincoats, hot food and bottled water, while primary school kids chanted gayau (hang in there) from their classrooms across the street.

Only a few in the line were lucky enough to secure a ticket to hear the case, but a man offered his precious seat to a British consulate representative. "You need it more than I do," he said.

On the final day, dozens of journalists crammed into a tiny press room to watch the live broadcast from the courthouse. I sat on the floor sandwiched between two chairs. All eyes were on whether the 47 figures would be released on bail.

I was grateful for my little corner in the room, given how photojournalists had camped out on a hill near the detention center for days, just to capture the fleeting moments of the defendants walking to the court-bound prison van under heavy security. Several camera-ready activists showed hand signs of resistance, reassuring the public that their spirits were up.

A handful of the defendants had been hospitalized after fainting inside the courtroom as the lengthy hearings on previous days left them sleepless. Defence lawyers complained that their clients had not been able to rest, shower or change clothes due to prison procedures that barred families from delivering garments.

Seven defendants dismissed their lawyers at the last minute to represent themselves, seizing their last chance to speak up before losing their freedoms. Some choked with tears as they spoke. Their "moving" remarks, as described by the judge, however, cannot be reported under Hong Kong's statutory rules. Requests by defense lawyers to lift the restrictions were denied as the judge cited concerns of prejudicing future trials.

Many people braved the rain to support the democracy campaigners. (Photo by Michelle Chan)

Frustrated by the conclusion, reporters continued to wait patiently for the bail decision, which turned out to be the greatest twist in the 11-hour hearing that day.

Just as the judge ruled that 15 of the 47 defendants would be granted bail -- albeit on strict conditions -- and their friends and families cheered for the results, the prosecutors immediately appealed the ruling. All the defendants would therefore be remanded in custody pending the appeals or further investigations.

In shock, people in the courtroom vented their anger through chants that proliferated during the 2019 protests.

"Five demands, not one less."

"Political prisoners are not guilty, Hong Kongers never die."

As the prolonged hearing ended with disappointed faces, I walked out of the court building that was still surrounded by opposition supporters late at night. The crowd, defying police warnings that they could too be arrested, turned on the flashing lights on their phones in hopes that the defendants could see them from afar when returning to the prison van.

It was not easy to be seen. The police blocked nearby roads so it was impossible to get close. People chanted words of support as they ran after the van, even though it was unlikely they could be heard by the defendants.

"Carry on!" "You can pull it through."

Yet, people tried despite the slimmest chance of success.

So did everyone else -- the activists who campaigned, the protesters who resisted, the lawyers who defended -- all with the knowledge they were fighting for something that was nothing more than a pipe dream.

This simple, sometimes naive, perseverance is what makes Hong Kong so lovely and is why we are so reluctant to give up on this city.

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