The Washington Post
Hong Kong protester found guilty in first security law trial
HONG KONG — A year after Beijing imposed a national security law that curbed freedom of speech in Hong Kong, a court was asked to decide Tuesday whether a ubiquitous slogan of the city’s beaten democracy movement is now illegal: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”
The short answer: It is. In the first trial verdict under the new law, three judges ruled that a 24-year-old protester incited secession and committed terrorism when he carried a black flag with the offending slogan while riding his motorcycle into a group of police officers. The defendant, Tong Ying-kit, could face up to life in prison.
Judge Esther Toh said that because of the “natural and reasonable effect” of the slogan on the flag, and considering the circumstances, the words “were capable of inciting others to commit secession.” The defendant mounted a “deliberate challenge” against the police, a “symbol of Hong Kong’s law and order,” she said. The court adjourned within minutes.
The outcome was closely watched as a gauge of how Hong Kong’s courts would apply the security law amid fears for judicial independence as China tightens its grip on the city. The new law, which criminalizes vaguely worded acts such as secession, subversion and foreign collusion, has unnerved foreign businesses and sparked an exodus from the Asian financial hub. The city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, was supposed to guarantee freedom of speech, although the security law has been used to crush dissent.
The High Court judges hearing Tong’s case were chosen from a panel appointed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and the defendant was denied a jury trial — contrary to the city’s common law tradition. Tong’s multiple appeals for a jury trial were rejected by other courts.
Eric Lai, an expert on Hong Kong law at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, said the outcome is “disappointing” and sets a dangerous precedent for unfair trials.
“Prosecutors and judges can now take advantage of this verdict to justify charges of promoting seditious speech against citizens and activists who merely chanted or held flags bearing the same slogan,” he said.
Lai added that the verdict on the “terrorism” charge is “disproportionate,” as it means that protesters whose actions are deemed by courts to be linked to a “political agenda” could face prosecution and life imprisonment.
“The judges’ reading of the slogan is in line with the narrative of the government and the police,” he said. “The maximum penalty instills a chilling effect on free speech.”
Attached to Tong’s motorcycle as he careened down a street on July 1, 2020, was a flag bearing the “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan. The mantra was a rallying cry during citywide protests in 2019 against the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms, which Beijing was supposed to preserve until 2047. Tong was subsequently charged with incitement to secession and terrorist activities under the security law. Of the three officers injured when Tong’s bike crashed into the group, two were released from the hospital that same day.
Since then, dozens of activists have also been charged and denied bail, while others have fled into exile.
Much of Tong’s trial was consumed by legal debate over the meaning of the protest phrase and whether it constituted an attempt to split Hong Kong from China — a red line for President Xi Jinping.
Lau Chi-pang, a prosecution expert witness and history professor, said the slogan points to separatism when considered in the “customary usage” of the words “from a historical perspective” as well as in the 2016 local election campaign of former localist leader Edward Leung, who coined the phrase.
Eliza Lee, a defense expert witness and political science professor, argued that Leung never publicly explained the meaning of the slogan. Although the activist made speeches that advocated for Hong Kong’s independence during a local election, she said that yelling slogans was a “typical” campaign activity and that the phrase itself does not equate to the meaning of the speeches. Clive Grossman, a defense lawyer, added that Lau’s argument was based on a “rigid, mechanical view of history” and paid no attention to “rhetoric.”
In a closing statement, lead prosecutor Anthony Chau reiterated the words of his expert witness. He said that Tong’s roaming through the city with a flag on the back of his motorbike was effectively a “parade” and that he intended to communicate the words on the flag.
He added that Tong caused injuries to the officers with an “utter disregard for human life” and “seriously jeopardized public safety” to pursue a political agenda. One officer said earlier that his left wrist still hurts and that he has difficulty performing simple tasks such as opening a bottle.
The court will announce Tong’s sentence at a later date.