A Hong Kong court delivered a landmark ruling on Tuesday that will help lift the lid on secrecy-shrouded pre-trial hearings held under a national security law.
The security law was imposed by Beijing after huge democracy protests and has largely snuffed out dissent in the city.
About 100 people have been charged under the law with the vast majority denied bail, held for months -- some more than a year -- in pre-trial detention.
Precedent-setting decisions have been made in lengthy pre-trial hearings, but the media have been unable to cover legal arguments because of strict reporting restrictions, even though multiple defendants have asked for them to be lifted.
On Tuesday, High Court judge Alex Lee ruled that if a defendant asks, the restrictions must be lifted around hearings and proceedings for referring a case to the High Court.
The magistrate has no right to refuse “to lift the reporting restrictions at the instance of the accused,” Lee wrote in his judgement.
The ruling will set a precedent for other cases and should allow the media to report more details on how the national security law is being applied.
China says the security law was needed to restore stability after huge and sometimes violent democracy protests in 2019.
Critics say it has dealt a blow to Hong Kong’s freedoms and transformed the city’s legal landscape -- a bedrock of its business hub reputation.
Tuesday’s successful appeal was brought by Chow Hang-tung, a prominent jailed democracy activist and lawyer.
Chow was also a key organizer of Hong Kong’s annual commemorations of the deadly 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, a huge pro-democracy event outlawed since the protests.
Last September, she and two other Tiananmen vigil leaders, Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho, were charged with “incitement to subversion,” which carries up to a decade in jail under the security law.
While members of the public have been allowed to attend pre-trial hearings in the past year, reporting has largely been limited to names, hearing dates and what a judge rules.
Tuesday’s ruling is expected to affect the biggest national security trial currently winding its way through the courts -- the prosecution of 47 prominent activists on subversion charges.
Four defendants in that case recently made an application to remove reporting restrictions.
The group is charged with subversion for joining a primary election to choose opposition candidates.
The majority have been in custody for over a year and the few granted bail must adhere to strict speech curbs.
Hong Kong authorities say the group tried to topple the government. Those on trial counter they were engaging in legal politics and that their prosecution reveals how far freedoms have faltered in Hong Kong.
US SEC adds Alibaba to list of Chinese companies facing delisting risk