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Every effort being made to expedite HK trial of 47

By Grenville Cross | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-08-18 09:50
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Although the National Security Law for Hong Kong prioritizes human rights, this is invariably disregarded by its critics. It not only highlights the role of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its application, but also requires cases are expeditiously conducted.

It also stipulates that national security suspects "shall be entitled to a fair trial before a judicial body, without undue delay".

On Feb 28, 2021, 47 individuals were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion by holding an unofficial primary in July 2020, ahead of a subsequently postponed Legislative Council election. Of the 47 accused, 13 have been granted bail, and concerns have been expressed over the time it is taking for the trial to begin. As is customary, reporting restrictions are in place to ensure there is no possible prejudice to the trial, and there have been only limited updates about the pretrial proceedings, which are ongoing.

On Aug 4, Paul Lam Ting-kwok, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's secretary for justice, promised to act on "legitimate" concerns over the delay in the prosecution of the 47 suspects, but he also pointed out that the proceedings so far have been extremely lengthy.

Although prosecutors are now having to carry a far heavier workload, he explained that the Department of Justice is working with the judiciary and defense lawyers to resolve the problem of long waiting times, and this is clearly encouraging.

The chief justice, Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, is also acutely aware of the problem of trial delays in relation to all types of criminal cases and is taking remedial measures.

Indeed, the time between the filing of an indictment in the Court of First Instance and the hearing of the case was 167 days in 2019,349 days in 2020 and 383 days in 2021.

However, these figures do not necessarily tell the full story, and if there is a surge in cases, as occurred after the insurrection of 2019, or if cases are vast, as with that of the 47 suspects, it will invariably be difficult to arrange early hearing dates.

On Jan 24, at the ceremonial opening of the legal year, Cheung explained that the judiciary's "workload is always heavy, and manpower is tight", adding that "all this must be firmly borne in mind in any discussion of further improving judicial efficiency and output". He nonetheless indicated his plans to improve the overall situation, including more judges, better case management and an extension of the judicial assistant program to provide support for more judges, and his plans will hopefully bear fruit in the near future.

When, moreover, Cheung was asked about the trial of the 47 national security suspects, he said the courts could not sidestep necessary procedural steps "for the sake of having a speedy trial". By this, he was apparently referring to the committal proceedings, which are an integral part of the mechanism by which a case is transferred from the Magistrates' Court to the Court of First Instance. If the committal proceedings are contested, it can greatly slow a case's progress.

However, a proper perspective must be maintained, and the bulk of cases are invariably tried within a reasonable time frame, meaning within a year or thereabouts. Thus, for example, Tong Ying-kit, who is the first person to have been convicted of national security offenses, was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment after a con-tested trial in July 2021, barely 12 months after the crimes occurred on July 1, 2020.

Although the problem of trial delays is one that exists throughout the common law world, some malevolent entities have sought to sensationalize the situation in Hong Kong. Whereas any case with 47 defendants is bound to proceed slowly, there is absolutely nothing sinister about this, although such entities have suggested otherwise.

Although these various organizations have agendas of their own, they are united in their hostility toward the National Security Law, which explains the glaring omissions in their commentaries. All of them, for example, have ignored the lengths to which both the chief justice and the secretary for justice are going to expedite the hearing of criminal trials of all types.

Indeed, as they are only interested in denigrating Hong Kong, the critics have made no attempt to place the situation in a comparative context.

If they were genuinely interested in the plight of the 47 alleged subversives, the critics would have welcomed the news that every effort is being made to expedite the trial. They would also have been reassured that convictions will result only if guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt after a trial before an independent judge. Their crocodile tears are meaningless, however, and they only see the case as a propaganda opportunity.

The author is a senior counsel and law professor and was previously director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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