By Sharon Tam and Jessie Pang
HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong court on Wednesday adjourned for a third day the bail hearing of 47 pro-democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, a case that has exacerbated international concern over freedoms in the financial hub.
The marathon bail proceedings have gone on late into the night for three consecutive days, causing five of the defendants to fall ill and seek medical assistance.
Local media footage showed the defendants dressed in the same clothes for four days since they were formally charged on Sunday, some looking exhausted.
A number of them dismissed their legal representatives and plan to add more testimony to their submissions to the court.
The charges are the most sweeping use yet of the national security law that Beijing imposed on the global financial hub in June 2020 and are punishable with up to life in prison.
In contrast with Hong Kong's common law traditions, the new security law puts the onus on defendants to prove they will not pose a security threat if released on bail.
The activists, aged 23-64, are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial primary poll last July that authorities said was part of a plan to "overthrow" the government.
The election was aimed at selecting the strongest candidates for a legislative council election that the government later postponed, citing the coronavirus.
Hong Kong laws restrict media coverage of the content of bail hearings.
'IT'S A TEST'
Foreign diplomats and rights groups are closely monitoring the case amid mounting concerns over the independence of the former British colony's vaunted judicial system that is seen as the foundation on which its financial prowess was built.
"We’ve not seen something like this before. It’s usually very fast ... It’s very strange," said Consul General of Ireland David Costello, who was at the court on behalf of the European Union, regarding the length of the hearings.
"It’s a test of what’s going to happen in Hong Kong."
The detentions have been fiercely criticised by governments in the West, including in Britain and the United States. Any rejection of bail is expected to ramp up tensions with Beijing.
Hong Kong's Department of Justice said in a statement on Tuesday no one should interfere with independent prosecutorial decisions, adding it "undermines the rule of law."
Among those charged were the organiser of the primary election and former law professor Benny Tai, as well as prominent democracy campaigners Lester Shum, Joshua Wong, Owen Chow, Wu Chi-wai and Sam Cheung.
Supporters of the security law, which punishes what it broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, say it is necessary to restore stability in Hong Kong.
On Monday, about 1,000 supporters defied social gathering rules to curb coronavirus and rallied outside the West Kowloon courthouse as the defendants appeared to face charges following their arrest over the weekend.
The crowds have since subsided.
"I feel powerless, that our support would not help the case. I just want the defendants to feel supported," said 19-year-old Chan, who was among a few dozen supporters at the court, giving only his last name due to the sensitivity of the matter.
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Lincoln Feast, William Maclean)