HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Hong Kong court adjourned a second hearing on Tuesday of 47 pro-democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, a case that has stoked global concern that Beijing is using a national security law to crush the city’s opposition.
Lawyers for the defendants are challenging a prosecution bid to deny them bail and keep them in custody for up to three months while police investigate further.
The charges are the most sweeping use yet of the national security law that Beijing imposed on its freest city last June, drawing international condemnation.
After a marathon session the previous day that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday, the judge adjourned the case after one defendant fell ill and was taken to hospital. Three others were taken to hospital after the case was adjourned.
The hearing resumed around 11.30am local time (0330 GMT), with many of the defendants appearing exhausted. The case resumes on Wednesday.
The activists are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial primary poll last July that authorities said was part of a plan to “overthrow” the government.
The election was aimed at selecting the strongest candidates for a legislative council election that the government later postponed, citing the coronavirus.
Human Rights Watch said the charges demonstrate “utter disregard for democratic political processes.”
“Beijing is on track to smother the remaining vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at the group.
Hong Kong’s Department of Justice said in a statement no one should interfere with independent prosecutorial decisions, adding it “undermines the rule of law.”
Among those charged were the organiser of the primary election and former law professor Benny Tai, as well as prominent activists Lester Shum, Joshua Wong and Owen Chow.
The charges are the latest blow to the city’s opposition camp, which has seen some legislators disqualified, scores arrested and others flee overseas for fear of being detained under Beijing’s national security law.
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Foreign diplomats and rights groups are closely monitoring the court case amid mounting concerns over the independence of the former British colony’s once-vaunted judicial system that is seen as crucial for its role as a global financial centre.
On Monday, about 1,000 supporters defied social gathering rules to curb coronavirus and rallied outside the West Kowloon courthouse as the defendants appeared to face charges following their arrest over the weekend.
The crowd chanted slogans such as “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times” and with many dressed in black, the images were reminiscent of scenes during anti-government demonstrations that roiled the city in 2019.
The detentions have been fiercely criticised by governments in the West, including in Britain and the United States.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday Washington had called on Hong Kong authorities to release those still held and drop charges against them.
Beijing has said the security law, which punishes what it broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, is necessary to restore stability in Hong Kong.
More than 10,000 were arrested in the demonstrations, while 99 have been arrested under the national security law.
At a parliamentary session in Beijing starting this week, China is expected to dramatically reform Hong Kong’s electoral system, upending the territory’s political scene, more than a dozen politicians from across the spectrum told Reuters.
(Reporting By Jessie Pang, James Pomfret; Twinnie Siu; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Gerry Doyle, William Maclean)