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Hong Kong activists ask pro-Beijing law firm to defend them

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Hong Kong politics updates

At least three of the 47 Hong Kong democracy activists arrested in dawn raids have chosen to be defended by the legal firm run by one of their traditional political opponents: a staunchly pro-Beijing lawmaker.

The group was arrested in January in the largest purge of opposition figures since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city following the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

But some activists increasingly believe they have a better chance of defending themselves with lawyers with political connections, people familiar with the cases said.

Only a group of specially selected judges are allowed to hear security law cases and defendants do not have a right to a jury trial, in a break with the city’s legal traditions. Critics said the changes had put pressure on the independence of the city’s globally recognised legal system, with government opponents fearing they will not receive a fair trial. 

Paul Tse is a vocal supporter of Beijing in the city’s legislature who has characterised himself as the “Superman of law” and once faced disciplinary hearings over a protest where he posed almost nude. He confirmed his firm was representing the activists.

“We’ve been representing Au Nok-hin and Michael Pang, have just been instructed to take over the case of Ben Chung from his previous solicitors; and have been approached to and will probably act for Andrew Chiu in the near future,” Tse told the Financial Times. All four were arrested in dawn raids.

Ryan Mitchell, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “There was likely a calculation by these defendants that they needed to show some level of acceptance of the post-[security law] status quo.”

Michael Pang, a pro-democracy district councillor, leaves the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts
Michael Pang, right, a pro-democracy district councillor, will be represented by Paul Tse’s legal firm © Bloomberg

The government has accused the activists of attempting to “subvert” Chinese state power by organising a primary run-off to choose pro-democracy candidates to contest an election scheduled for last year. Subversion is punishable with up to life in prison under the security law.

Tse, who has 30 years of legal experience across Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore, declined to comment on why the activists had chosen him, citing ethical reasons.

The partner of another of the 47 not represented by Tse said they had lost hope the case would prove the activists’ innocence after Tong Ying-kit, a former waiter, was sentenced to nine years in prison for terrorism and inciting secession in the first security law case.

Tong had ridden his motorbike into a line of police during a protest last year, injuring three officers. “They might need to plead guilty to something,” the activist’s partner said.

Analysts said Tong’s case underlined the wide application of the legislation. Pro-democracy supporters said that his prosecution was unduly harsh, arguing that he should have been charged with dangerous driving.

“Some defendants picked pro-establishment lawyers just to try another way . . . hoping that the judge will view their submissions with greater understanding than the typical pro-democracy lawyers,” a person from the legal team of one of the 47 activists said.

One barrister said they were reluctant to take on security law cases because the likelihood of achieving a not-guilty verdict or minimal jail time was low.

Pro-government barristers argued that the precedent created by the Tong ruling would close loopholes in the Hong Kong legal system and ensure that serious offences were punished appropriately. 

China’s diplomatic office in Hong Kong accused critics of the ruling of smearing the independence of the legal system. “Certain political forces have exerted pressure on Hong Kong judicial proceedings time and again and tried to whitewash anti-China, destabilising forces in Hong Kong,” the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

On Sunday, Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, a civil society umbrella group that organised some of the largest, peaceful demonstrations in 2019, announced that it had disbanded, citing “unprecedented challenges” including the arrest of one of its leaders, Figo Chan.

The announcement came after Hong Kong police chief Raymond Siu told a state-backed newspaper last week that the group may have violated the security law in holding the marches, which had received police approval at the time. CHRF has not held any marches since the security law came into force last year, and Hong Kong authorities have previously given assurances that it would not be applied retroactively.

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