What the first national security law verdict means for Hong Kong

Man aged 24 found guilty of secession and terrorism in landmark trial ruling

Tong Ying-kit arrives in court
Tong Ying-kit arrives in court
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The first person to be charged under Hong Kong’s controversial national security law is facing a possible life sentence after being found guilty of inciting secession and terrorism.

Tong Ying-kit was accused of driving his motorcycle into three riot police while flying a flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” - a slogan that “was ubiquitous during Hong Kong's mass 2019 protests”, Reuters reports. Prosecutors successfully argued that the flag was “secessionist”.

The landmark court verdict could result in “a prison term of several years to life” for the 24-year-old former waiter, who pleaded not guilty, the news agency adds.

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Landmark ruling

Tong was arrested on 1 July 2020, just hours after the national security law was introduced. More than 100 people have since been arrested under the legislation, which critics say “reduces Hong Kong’s autonomy and makes it easier to punish activists”, the BBC reports.

Under an agreement known as “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong is meant to have autonomy from China, but activists have long claimed that Beijing is tightening its grip.

China insists that the national security law, “which was introduced after a series of mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, is needed to bring stability to the city”, the broadcaster continues.

Tong was sentenced at a trial without a jury, in a marked departure from Hong Kong’s common law tradition. His defence team “had argued for a jury, but Hong Kong’s justice secretary argued that the jurors’ safety would be put at risk given the city’s sensitive political climate”.

The trial was widely seen as “a test of how the city’s traditionally independent courts would enforce the security law while upholding the city’s much cherished civil liberties”, says The New York Times (NYT) says. And “in convicting Mr Tong, the court showed the extent to which the new law would criminalise political speech”.

The Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) news site reports that a three-judge panel “hand-picked” by the territory’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam ruled that “in the particular circumstances where Tong displayed the ‘Liberate Hong Kong’ slogan, such a phrase was capable of inciting others to commit secession”.

The 15-day trial saw “the prosecution and defence call three academics to debate the meaning of the protest slogan”, before the court ruled that Tong had “intended to communicate secessionist meaning and to incite others to commit secession” when he flew the flag, the news site adds.

Mitigation in the case is due to take place tomorrow, with no date set for sentencing as yet.

‘Beginning of the end’

Authorities in Hong Kong have “already used the law, which vaguely defines political crimes such as subversion and terrorism, to curb protests and arrest leaders of the pro-democracy movement”, the NYT reports.

But the guilty verdict in Tong’s trial has fuelled fears that similar sentences could be handed out to the many other people awaiting trial on charges brought under the law, including “dozens of pro-democracy politicians who have been accused of subversion for their calls to block the government’s agenda in the legislature”.

When their cases go to trial, all eyes will be on “how the law may erode the city’s much vaunted British common law traditions of fairness and independence”, the paper adds.

“The conviction of Tong Ying-kit is a significant and ominous moment for human rights in Hong Kong,” said Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra in a statement yesterday.

“Today’s verdict underlines the sobering fact that expressing certain political opinions in the city is now officially a crime, potentially punishable by life in jail. This feels like the beginning of the end for freedom of expression in Hong Kong.”

That warning was echoed by Steve Tsang, director of the London-based SOAS China Institute in London. “I think we would be kidding ourselves if we think the national security law would not be enforced in the way the Chinese government conceived it,” he told the NYT.

“The idea that the Hong Kong judiciary would be able to moderate it would be a mistake.”

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