A four-day court hearing for Hong Kong’s biggest national security prosecution has triggered a wave of complaints from the 47 defendants and their lawyers over the authorities’ handling of the case, which they said left the accused in dirty clothes, sleep deprived and hungry in the dock.
The marathon bail proceedings at West Kowloon Court – which dragged on for a total of 28 hours of marathon hearings spanning four days – not only prompted the opposition figures’ representatives to accuse the prosecution of inadequately preparing for the case, but also attracted criticism from a legal scholar, who found the court’s arrangements “most unsatisfactory” and said the defendants deserved better treatment.
On Thursday night, 15 of the 47 defendants were granted bail, but were ordered to remain in custody after prosecutors appealed the decision. They were sent back to Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre and Lo Wu Correctional Institution, which house male and female detainees, respectively.
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A former top prosecutor, however, sympathised with the presiding judge citing the unprecedented nature of the case under the national security law, which took effect on June 30 last year.
The 47, including former opposition legislators and incumbent district councillors, were first in the dock on Monday morning, a day after they reported back to police – more than a month ahead of the original date on police demand – and were detained overnight for questioning. They were arrested in January on suspicion of plotting to subvert state power and remanded in various police stations overnight for questioning.
They were accused of a conspiracy to commit subversion by seizing control of the legislature with the ultimate aim of paralysing the government and toppling the city’s leader. Prosecutors requested all of the accused be remanded in custody while police complete their investigation.
Initially slated for 11am on Monday before Chief Magistrate Victor So Wai-tak, the first session of the bail hearing eventually started at 4pm, after all defence lawyers had taken instructions from the defendants in the prisoners’ holding area, which was too small for the client discussions to be held all at once.
With the courtroom only able to accommodate the defendants and their lawyers, the judiciary took the rare step of excluding the defendants’ families, journalists and members of the public from the public gallery for the duration of the proceedings.
A live video feed of the hearings was available in a neighbouring courtroom and two other rooms on a separate floor, but spectators could hardly catch a glimpse of the defendants who were seated far away from the cameras.
When they eventually went ahead, the proceedings were punctuated by adjournments. At one stage, the court was forced to take a one-hour recess at 7pm after defence lawyers complained they had not obtained all the prosecution filings before making their respective bail applications.
Some defendants, already appearing drowsy, rose from their seats at 10.30pm, complaining they had not had a meal since proceedings had started.
“I want to eat,” said Lester Shum, one of the 47 and a district councillor. Another defendant, former lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, said neither the prison operator nor police had prepared meals for the 47.
The magistrate then said police had bought the defendants dinner and allowed them to return to the holding area for refreshment while the proceedings continued.
The first session eventually came to a halt just before 3am on Tuesday, after defendant and district councillor Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying fainted in the dock and was taken to hospital.
Three co-defendants – former lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and district councillors Roy Tam Hoi-pong and Mike Lam King-nam – were also taken away in an ambulance after reporting feeling unwell.
When the second session started on Tuesday at noon, Magistrate So said he would set aside time for dinner and adjourn the hearing before midnight to avoid exhausting the accused.
But defence counsels told the court that the defendants were unable to rest and shower in detention centres as they were brought back before the magistrate within two hours of returning to their cells.
They also complained their clients had not been able to change their clothes since being detained on Sunday, as their families reported they could not deliver garments, citing complicated prison procedures.
One defendant, barrister Lawrence Lau Wai-chung, told the magistrate: “I am very sorry for my shabby clothes and messy appearance, as I have not bathed, washed my head and changed my clothes for three days.”
But Magistrate So said it was “a bit difficult” for him to make exceptional arrangements for the defendants’ families, and urged them to follow the usual prison procedures in supplying the 47 with basic amenities.
He decided to delay the start of the third hearing on Wednesday, however, to allow time for the defendants to clean themselves.
In Wednesday’s session, although defence lawyers had finished making submissions for bail, the 47 eventually were required to spend a third night in jail.
In a surprise move, seven of the accused decided to sack their representatives that evening and make personal appeals to the magistrate. Four of the seven had yet to speak by the end of the third hearing.
Simon Young Ngai-man, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the hearings had been “most unsatisfactory” in terms of both the treatment of the accused and procedural efficiency.
“We can debate whether the treatment of these defendants met the legal definition of cruel and inhuman treatment, but I think basic values of decency and humanity would say they ought to have been treated better,” he said.
But former director of public prosecutions Grenville Cross was sympathetic to the magistrate, saying he was presented with “a very challenging assignment”.
“On the one hand, he has sought to process the case expeditiously, while on the other he has had to ensure that all legal submissions are heard and that the defendants are not under undue strain … He appears to have done his best,” he said.
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