A court in Hong Kong has denied bail to 32 democracy activists charged with "subversion" under a draconian national security law and granted it to 15 of them, local media reported by live video feed on Thursday.
However, all 47 defendants were back behind bars on Thursday night after the government said it wanted a review of the decision.
As supporters continued to gather outside the court, chanting "Release the political prisoners!" police held up a banner warning the crowd that they too may in breach of the law, which bans public criticism of the authorities, ordering them to disperse.
At least three pro-democracy activists were hospitalized during the four-day marathon court bail hearings in the cases of 47 sitting District Councilors, former Legislative Council (LegCo) members, and democracy activists that was closed to the media.
Dozens of defendants in the mass "subversion" case were denied adequate access to bathrooms, washing facilities, and clean clothes.
Overseas activists slammed the treatment of the defendants as akin to political trials in the Stalin era of the former Soviet Union.
"The judicial process launched by the Chinese authorities targeting well-known political figures and activists is increasingly reminiscent of the Stalinist terror," the overseas-based Free Hong Kong Center said on its Facebook page.
"Democrats are not being given access to lawyers, as is their right, nor are they being allowed to examine case files," it said. "They haven't even been able to get a change of clothes in four days."
"During this assault on their civil liberties, at least four defendants have lost consciousness," it said. "Journalists aren't allowed into the court, and families have no idea what is going on with their loved ones."
It said there are concerns that some of the defendants may face extradition and trial in a mainland Chinese court, a possibility that is allowed under the draconian National Security Law for Hong Kong imposed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020.
Disqualified lawmaker Baggio Leung, also known as Sixtus Leung, has been relaying details of the bail hearing from sources in the public gallery to his Facebook account, despite a ban on reporting anything other than the names and basic personal details of defendants.
He cited various sources as saying activist Owen Chow and former student leader Lester Shum had all been admitted to hospital on Wednesday night, while Wanchai District Council chairwoman Clarisse Yeung was back in court on Wednesday evening after being admitted to hospital earlier in the day.
At least 12 of the defendants fired their attorneys and conducted their own defense, with many opting to reject bail if it came with conditions affecting their freedom of speech.
Restrictions on speech
Former Stand News journalist Gwyneth Ho told the court: "I'm willing to accept any bail conditions ... it's up to the court to explain how Hong Kong people can avoid breaking the national security law."
"But I have noticed that many judges have been imposing restrictions on freedom of speech as part of bail conditions, and I will not accept that from this court," she said.
"I cannot accept a ban on discussing politics or on expressing my personal opinions on social media," Ho said. "I am totally against it."
Democratic Party District Councilor Lam Cheuk-ting pleaded with the court to grant bail: "I have two children and my wife has lost a lot of weight in the past few days."
"I will be careful in future and avoid running afoul of the law," he said.
Yeung cited her humble beginnings in a working-class Hong Kong family, saying that she needs her politician's salary to help her ailing, elderly parents.
"I have never enjoyed good health," Yeung said, adding that she would accept any bail conditions for a chance to be reunited with her family. "My family is poor, but I always wanted to study art. My family taught me to take responsibility."
'Subversion of state power'
Police have said the defendants were charged for their involvement in democratic primaries in July 2020. The primaries were considered "subversive" because their stated aim was to secure at least 35 seats in the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) for opposition candidates, so the pro-democracy camp could veto the government's budgets.
Such an action is regarded as "subversion of state power" under Article 22 of the national security law, according to the authorities.
The arrests came after the primaries were criticized in state-run Chinese media as an attempt to foment a "color revolution."
On Thursday, the Heritage Foundation said it had dropped Hong Kong from its Economic Freedom Index, after lauding it as the worlds "freest economy" for 25 years straight.
In the 2021 Index published on Thursday, the foundation said Hong Kong and Macau, both special administrative regions of China, were no longer included because "developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those polities are ultimately controlled from Beijing," Reuters reported.
Chief CCP goverment adviser Wang Yang said on the first day of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) that he chairs that the body "resolutely supports the principle of patriots governing Hong Kong."
He said consultations would be held this year over youth education in Hong Kong and Macau, and that "educational exchanges" with mainland Chinese institutions would be stepped up.
Reported by Lu Xi, Carmen Wu, Man Hoi Yan and Fong Tak Ho for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.