The first person convicted under Hong Kong’s national security law has been sentenced to nine years in prison after being found guilty of terrorism and secession in a watershed ruling that could act as a benchmark for the city’s revamped judicial setting.
Leon Tong Ying-kit, a former waiter at a restaurant, was sentenced on Friday following his conviction Tuesday after a 15-day trial. The 24-year-old was found guilty of driving his motorcycle into police officers during a street protest in July of 2020 while carrying a flag saying, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of the times.” Ina break with past practice, the case was heard by three specially enlisted judges with no jury.
Eric Yan-ho Lai, a Hong Kong Fellow at Georgetown University, pointed out that according to the text of the national security law, acts of secession deemed to be serious would face a jail sentence of not less than five years. A terrorism act that was deemed serious would warrant a sentence that exceeds 10 years.
The law analyst said Tong’s sentencing indicates that the three-judge panel views secessionist acts, such as bearing a flag in a public scene, as a serious crime in Hong Kong.
He tweeted, “No doubt, in the eyes of the establishment, the decision of sentencing creates a strong deterrent effect to political dissents. But for ordinary citizens, this amplifies a chilling effect that we didn’t sense before, even in colonial times…”
Andrew Powner of the Hong Kong-based law firm Haldanes, said in an email to VOA that the panel took into account Tong’s actions, which led to his guilty verdict earlier this week.
“The judgment was case specific and he was convicted because the offenses involved: (a) driving a motorbike at speed into police officers, (b) injuring the police officers, (c) driving through and swerving to avoid various police roadblocks, (d) whilst prominently displaying a flag with the slogan used by the protest movement, (e) previous social media exchanges allegedly setting out his intentions, and (f) taking place during the course of an unauthorized assembly on 1st July 2020.”
Powner stated that the circumstances involved in Tong’s advocating secession led to the case being ruled serious by the presiding judges and that the sentencing is in line with Hong Kong’s national security law guidelines.
“The judges have also, I believe, correctly applied the totality principle, taking into account the seriousness of both offenses and deciding to apply a reduction with part concurrent sentences, rather than applying consecutive sentences.”
Consecutive sentences would have seen Tong face more than 14 years behind bars, instead of nine. But Powner added that Tong might only serve six years if he can show good behavior, reducing a third of his sentence because he still has the right to apply for early release under the security law.
Tong’s lead defense lawyer, Clive Grossman SC, had requested the sentence be no more than 10 years during Tuesday’s verdict proceedings.
On Friday in Hong Kong’s High Court, Tong had little reaction to the sentencing as members of his family looked on. Outside the building, crowds gathered at a footbridge inside the nearby Pacific Place Mall, hoping to catch a glimpse of the defendant as he left. Police officers soon arrived, dispersing crowds by cordoning off lookout areas and warning them of social distancing laws.
Local media reported Grossman confirmed the defense team is set to appeal both the verdict and the sentencing. VOA contacted Tong’s defense team members but they declined to comment.
The conviction of Tong for secession is the first of its kind under the security law, but it might not be the last.
Last week five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists were arrested for allegedly “conspiring to publish seditious materials” after publishing several children’s books. Authorities claim the books, which revolve around sheep, incite hatred toward the government. Two of the members have since been denied bail.
And Hong Kong authorities recently arrested a 40-year-old man after his laundry rack was spotted holding a flag stating “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” the same slogan as the flag Tong carried. This has led to increased fear about how certain phrases can be interpreted as sedition in the city.
Georgetown’s Yan-ho Lai added that future security law cases that carry secession charges would see more serious sentences.
“It reflects that judges see the offense of inciting secession is serious in nature, while that of a terrorist act not so. It tells the world that showing a flag with words that are “capable of inciting secession” at [a] public scene becomes a serious crime in Hong Kong.
“For future NSL cases, the sentences would be much more severe if their offenses are not limited to giving public speeches,” the law analyst told VOA.
Under the “one country, two systems” agreement signed by Britain and China in 1997, after the city was transferred back to Chinese rule, Beijing promised that Hong Kong would retain a “high degree of autonomy'” until 2047.
After 2019’s pro-democracy protests, Beijing implemented the national security law for Hong Kong that took effect on June 30, 2020. Among other things, it prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be broadly interpreted.
Under the law, Hong Kong has seen at least 117 people arrested and at least 60 charged, including media mogul Jimmy Lai and high profile activists Joshua Wong and law professor Benny Tai.