Hong Kong court grants bail to three more activists in subversion case

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s High Court granted bail on Monday to three more activists in a case against 47 people accused of conspiracy to subvert the government after holding an informal 2020 poll to select candidates for legislative elections.

The case is being closely watched by foreign diplomats and rights groups concerned with the shrinking space for dissent in Hong Kong, which took an authoritarian turn with Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law in June 2020.

Monday’s decision took to 11 the total of those granted bail in the case. It came after the court heard prosecutors’ appeals against an earlier decision to grant bail to four pro-democracy activists, one of whom was denied bail.

Hong Kong laws restrict media coverage of bail hearings.

The new law, which sets terms of up to life in prison for what China broadly defines as subversion, secessionism, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces, has provisions that clash with the former British colony’s common law traditions.

The case of the 47 accused of conspiracy highlights a key departure from previous practice, as the new law throws on defendants the responsibility of proving that they would not be a threat to China’s national security if released on bail.

This high bar means defendants could spend months in custody before trials begin.

Supporters of Beijing say the law and crackdown on opposition is necessary to restore order after prolonged and often-violent mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

The 47 are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial, non-binding primary poll in July 2020 that authorities called part of a “vicious plot” to “overthrow” the government.

The vote aimed to select the strongest opposition candidates for a Legislative Council election that the government postponed subsequently, citing efforts to limit spread of the coronavirus.

Some of the candidates had said that if the opposition won an unprecedented majority it could utilise it to strong-arm the Beijing-backed government to pursue democratic reforms.

Since the 47 were charged on Feb 28, courts have heard a series of requests for bail and appeals by both defendants and prosecutors.

The 11 given bail so far include Kalvin Ho, Sze Tak-loy and Lee Yue-shun on Monday. Another, Sam Cheung, was remanded in custody.

Reporting by Jessie Pang; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Clarence Fernandez