Hong Kong plans megacourt to deal with protest arrests backlog

City’s leader announces initiative as thousands still await trial, and also reveals project for new metropolis

Hong Kong will build a new megacourt to address a shortage of space as it works through a backlog of the thousands arrested during the 2019 mass protests, and the more than 150 arrested under the national security law.

The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, announced the initiative on Wednesday in a policy address, which also included plans for a new metropolis on the border with mainland China and further tightening of national security laws.

Lam said the megacourt would be established in an existing government building “to handle cases involving a large number of defendants” until a planned new district court is commissioned in late 2027. She said work on the court, as well as supporting facilities, would begin early next year.

“I have asked relevant departments to fully assist the judiciary in tackling the problem of courtroom shortage,” she said.

During demonstrations in 2019 when millions took to Hong Kong’s streets, police arrested more than 10,200 individuals. There was a 70% increase in the number of 16- to 20-year-olds arrested compared with the previous year, according to police statistics.

By April this year, when government figures were published, about one-quarter of the 10,200 had begun or completed judicial proceedings. Among those being processed, 720 people had been charged with rioting offences, while others were accused of unlawful assembly, desecration of the flag, weapon possession, stopping vehicles on an expressway, or assaulting a police officer, the South China Morning Post reported at the time.

There have also been single cases with large numbers of defendants. In March a bail hearing for 47 defendants – the bulk of those arrested over the staging of unofficial primaries for the pro-democracy camp – was criticised as lacking judicial fairness.

The first day of the hearing ran until 3am the following morning, ending with at least four defendants taken away by ambulance amid claims of a lack of food, rest, or opportunity to change clothes between sessions. The individuals and various legal teams struggled to fit in the courtroom.

That case has since been delayed multiple times, with most defendants – including former politicians and activists – remaining in jail on remand.

There have been growing concerns about the independence of Hong Kong’s once-vaunted court system, as it seeks to navigate increasing government pressure and the 2020 introduction of the national security law that included a separate police department, and provisions for the chief executive to handpick judges for sensitive cases. Trials can also be transferred to the mainland in special instances, but this power has not yet been used.

In her speech, Lam defended the judicial system, saying a fair trial and due process were “essential elements of the rule of law”, and that the judiciary played a “pivotal role”.

The lengthy policy address also flagged plans for a new city in the northern and rural areas near the border with mainland China. Lam said the metropolis could house up to 2.5 million people eventually, and serve as an international IT hub.

She also outlined plans to continue tightening security in Hong Kong, including implementing national security legislation in addition to the already active Beijing-imposed law, bringing in a “fake news” law, increasing national security education in schools, introducing programmes to help young people “develop positive thinking and law‑abiding awareness”, and expanding mandatory oath-taking for public servants.

On Thursday, Lam also said Hong Kong needed to consider banning insults, with a law covering the police, officials and potentially the general public, the broadcaster RTHK reported.

“In Singapore, they’ve recently enacted a piece of legislation to protect security guards in the private sector, so they won’t be insulted or injured,” Lam told the legislature. “So, give us some time to consider the scope of the legislation.”

Contributor

Helen Davidson in Taipei

The GuardianTramp

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