An anti-government protester in Hong Kong was found guilty Tuesday of terrorism and secession in a landmark ruling involving the first verdict delivered under the territory’s new national security law.
Leon Tong Ying-kit, 24, had pleaded not guilty to all charges in relation to an anti-government street protest last year. Tong had been accused of driving his motorcycle into police officers while carrying a flag with the phrase, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
Due to the security law charges, a three-judge panel was specially selected to preside over the case without a jury. After a mammoth 15-day trial, the panel returned with a guilty verdict.
Much of the case focused on how the slogan would be interpreted by the High Court panel. The now-banned phrase was a popular rallying call during Hong Kong’s 2019 anti-government demonstrations.
One of the judges, Esther Toh, said the defendant was aware of the meaning of the phrase the flag carried and ruled the slogan had a “natural and reasonable effect” of inciting others to commit secession, according to a report by the South China Morning Post newspaper.
Tong, a former waiter, has been refused bail since his arrest last year. He will be sentenced at a later date, but could face up to life imprisonment. His lawyers said no decision has been made as to whether they will appeal, according to local reports.
Eric Yan-ho Lai, a political and law analyst, told VOA in a phone interview that the ruling was “disappointing” because the judges had disregarded potential meanings of the slogan that were not secessionist.
“It’s a cherry-picking tactic by the judges, tried to pick one of many of the meanings to justify [the notion] Tong’s act is intimidating others for his own political agenda. It seems a very technical and formal approach to see this case,” he said.
The analyst, who is a Hong Kong Law Fellow at Georgetown University, added that international standards were not met in the case.
“Free expressions are not inciting imminent violence, should not be considered as a crime and should not be punished in Tong’s case,” he said.
Yan added that the verdict, which is seen as a departure from Hong Kong’s common law, sets a dangerous tone for future security law cases.
“If Tong received a much heavier sentence than other non-NSL [national security law] cases, say rioting or possession explosion articles … it would cause a strong impact of the common law in Hong Kong, when such acts could cause disproportionate sentencing, even to life in jail without the scrutiny of a jury trial,” he said.
July 1, 2020, marked the first full day of Hong Kong’s newly implemented national security law enacted by Beijing the night before. Thousands protested in the streets, though, opposing the law and the government. Hundreds were arrested, with at least 10 under the new security law, including Tong.
The legislation outlines four key prohibitions – secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion – and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Critics say the law has reduced Hong Kong’s unique autonomy promised when it was handed back to China from Britain in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the legislation would only target a minority of people. But nearly 13 months since the law became active, 100 people have been arrested and at least 60 charged, including media mogul Jimmy Lai and high-profile activist Joshua Wong.
On July 21, another former editor for a pro-democracy newspaper was arrested.
Apple Daily, founded in 1995 by Lai, was shut down after several of its executives were arrested for alleged violations of the security law. Hong Kong authorities then froze the company’s financial access, leaving the media outlet unable to pay its staff and vendors, forcing it to close. Western critics have depicted the media outlet’s closure as a blow to press freedom.
Last week, five members of Hong Kong’s Speech Therapists General Union were arrested for allegedly “conspiring to publish seditious materials” in connection with authoring 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.
A Hong Kong-based lawyer who has represented defendants under national security law charges spoke to VOA about the arrests but requested anonymity for her protection.
“The question still is, these children’s books about sheep, [do they] bring into hatred or contempt or incite disaffection against the government of Hong Kong? Can it be treated just as criticism? How is it any different from a newspaper column?”“From a point of view as governance, the Hong Kong government wants to break up civil society groups and unions, and that is one way of targeting them,” the lawyer said.
Pro-democracy activist, Hang Tung Chow, the vice chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance political group, was recently arrested for allegedly inciting illegal assembly. Just hours before, Chow told VOA she believes the government is targeting civil society groups such as hers.