Dozens of activists charged for violating Hong Kong’s national security law will now be tried without a jury, media reports say.
A total of 47 people are facing trial after being charged with subversion 18 months ago, and more than 30 have been held without bail since then. The initial trial proceedings took place in June.
Hong Kong’s new Secretary of Justice Paul Lam decided to remove the jury, citing concerns for the personal safety of the jurors and family members. Agence France-Presse’s reported that the order cited “foreign elements” as a reason to remove the jury from the trial.
For 177 years, trial by jury has been used in Hong Kong under its common law legal system. But since Beijing imposed a national security law upon Hong Kong three years ago to quell dissent, sensitive cases under the security law have been heard by hand-picked national security judges.
Eric Yan-ho Lai, a law analyst formerly of Hong Kong, told VOA he wasn’t surprised by the move.
“Jury trials [at] Hong Kong’s High Court have been an important safeguard for due process and justice of criminal trials,” he said. “The function of the no-jury provision in the national security law, however, is to reduce uncertainties of the trial outcome which is solely determined by judges handpicked by the chief executive. It appears that the government is trying hard to prevent any undesirable possibilities of these national security cases.”
“It is likely,” he added, “that the 47 primary cases will become a show trial as most of them have been detained for more than a year and the conventional practice of jury trial at Hong Kong's High Court is removed by the executive.”
Report raises concerns
In February 2021, the defendants – including elected lawmakers, academics and advocates – were summoned by authorities and charged under the security law for organizing an unofficial primary election in 2020. Authorities accuse the group of intending to gain a majority of the seats in Hong Kong's Legislature Council so they could force Hong Kong's chief executive to resign.
Among those charged are prominent activist Joshua Wong, veteran activist Leung "Long Hair" Kwok-hung, academic Benny Tai, former lawmaker Claudia Mo, and former journalist Gwyneth Ho. More than 30 of the defendants have been in detention since their arrest.
Yan-ho Lai pointed to a recent United Nations Human Rights Committee report published last month that raised concerns about the security law’s power to “restrict access to a fair trial.”
“The Committee is deeply concerned that certain provisions of the national security law substantially undermine the independence of judiciary and restrict the right to access to justice and to fair trial,” states the U.N. report.
“The decision also contravenes the latest U.N. Human Rights Committee's concluding observations on Hong Kong, that the practice of no jury trial undermines judicial independence and fair trial in Hong Kong,” Yan-ho Lai added.
It won’t be the first time a dissident in Hong Kong has faced trial without a jury. In July 2021, former restaurant worker Tong Ying-kit was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison by three national security judges selected by the then-Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Tong was found guilty of driving his motorcycle into police officers during a July 2020, street protest while carrying a flag stating “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of the Times” — a slogan banned under the security law.
Michael Mo, a former Hong Kong district councilor who is currently in Britain, says the decision shows human rights are not protected in the city.
“[The] recent decision [to] have their trial without a jury shows an exact opposite to the claim made by Beijing that human rights are safeguarded under the national security law. There were measures in place to protect the safety and privacy of the members of the jury and they were effective,” Mo told VOA.
“Claims which safety of jurors would be at risk is absurd and an excuse for the judges who pledged their allegiance to Beijing to get maximum grip of the trial,” he added.
Mo said Lam’s claims of foreign interference make no sense given how jurors are usually protected from outside influence during court trials.
“The ‘foreign elements’ claim made by Paul Lam in his decision, if true, is an outright fabrication,” said Mo. “Members of the jury are selected on a random basis. Together with the protection provided by the courts, jurors can be sealed off from the outside world during the trial. In such circumstances, how can the so-called “foreign elements” influence jurors’ decision?”
Following the anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing wanted to impose the national security law on Hong Kong to prevent more political unrest. The law, which prohibits acts deemed as secession, subversion, foreign collusion, and terrorism, carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
Since the legislation went into effect, it has been used by authorities to target dissidents in Hong Kong. So far, at least 183 have been arrested, and several have been jailed.