The first person charged under Hong Kong’s national security law has been found guilty of “terrorism” and “inciting secession”, in a landmark case with long-term implications for how the legislation reshapes the city’s common law traditions.
Former waiter Tong Ying-kit, 24, was accused of driving his motorcycle in July last year into three riot police officers while carrying a flag with the protest slogan: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, which prosecutors said was secessionist.
An alternative charge of dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm was not considered in Tuesday’s widely anticipated ruling, much of which has hinged on the interpretation of the slogan.
The High Court will hear mitigation arguments on Thursday and sentencing will be announced at a later date.
The ruling imposes new limits on free speech in the former British colony. Pro-democracy activists and human rights groups have also criticised the decision to deny Tong bail and a jury trial, which have been key features of Hong Kong’s rule of law.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown reporting outside the court said the ruling is in many ways a template for future cases of people who have been charged under the national security law.
“The hearing which took place over 15 days took place without a jury. The verdict was instead delivered by three judges appointed by the Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam. And also the defendant did not appear as a witness,” Brown said.
“Outside the court today there were no protesters and few signs of supporters. But that doesn’t mean to say that the sentiment has changed among many people here. Beneath the surface people are still seething over the events of last year buts its just not manifesting itself in the way that it once did,” he added.
Tong’s trial was presided over by judges Esther Toh, Anthea Pang and Wilson Chan. Toh read out a summary of the ruling in court, saying “such display of the words was capable of inciting others to commit secession”.
She added Tong was aware of the slogan’s secessionist meaning, and that he intended to communicate this meaning to others. He also had a “political agenda” and his actions caused “grave harm to society”.
In a statement, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra called the ruling an “ominous moment” for human rights in the city.
“This feels like the beginning of the end for freedom of expression in Hong Kong. People should be free to use political slogans during protests, and Tong Ying-kit should not be punished for exercising his right to free speech,” Mishra said.
Hong Kong Free Press quoted Tong’s lawyers as saying that he is still contemplating whether to file an appeal.
Question of secessionism
Tong had pleaded not guilty to all charges, which stemmed from events on July 1, 2020, shortly after the law was enacted.
The trial focused mostly on the meaning of the slogan, which was ubiquitous during Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy protests in 2019. It was chanted on the streets, posted online, scrawled on walls and printed on everything from pamphlets, books, stickers and T-shirts to coffee mugs.
Tong Ying-kit's representatives, Clive Grossman and Lawrence Lau left the High Court – Grossman said he hadn't yet read the reasoning, but Tong is still considering whether to file an appeal. https://t.co/SFJcxvqPlI pic.twitter.com/9ok6NtIjkg
— Hong Kong Free Press HKFP (@hkfp) July 27, 2021
The debates drew on a range of topics, including ancient Chinese history, the US civil rights movement and Malcolm X, to ascertain whether the slogan was secessionist.
Two expert witnesses called by the defence to analyse the slogan’s meaning, drawing upon sources including an examination of some 25 million online posts, found “no substantial link” between the slogan and Hong Kong independence.
The governments in Beijing and Hong Kong have said repeatedly the security law was necessary to bring stability after the often-violent 2019 protests and that the rights and freedoms promised to the city upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997 remain intact.
The law, imposed by Beijing in June 2020, punishes what China sees as subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
The government says all prosecutions have been handled independently and according to the law, and that legal enforcement action has nothing to do with the political stance, background or profession of those arrested.