Hong Kong, China: A senior judge said Thursday that the first Hong Konger accused under Beijing’s national security law will be prosecuted without a jury, cementing the financial hub’s fast-changing legal traditions.
After reportedly driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers during a protest, Tong Ying-kit, 24, was charged with two offenses under the new law a day after it took effect.
The Hong Kong justice secretary has decided not to use a jury in his future trial, as AFP first reported in February.
Tong appealed the verdict to the High Court but was unsuccessful on Thursday.
In his judgment, High Court judge Alex Lee stated that prior to the security statute, “the only method of the trial then accessible” for such serious offenses was a jury trial.
“However, the same is no longer true after the enactment of the NSL (National Security Law),” he wrote.
Trial by jury for serious criminal cases has been used by Hong Kong’s common law system for 176 years and is described by the city’s own judiciary on its website as one of its “most important features”.
However, charges can be tried by three specially selected judges under the national security statute, which was drafted in Beijing and imposed on Hong Kong last year.
“Any previous right to a jury trial in the Court of First Instance, if existed, shall be abrogated in ‘criminal proceedings concerning offenses endangering national security,” Lee wrote.
In Hong Kong, lower courts that prosecute less serious offenses also lack juries, which Lee claims prove there is no constitutional guarantee to a jury in all proceedings.
The legal sands are shifting.
After massive and often violent pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019, the security bill was specifically meant to quell unrest, and it proved successful.
Secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign cooperation are all objectives.
Much dissent has been criminalized as a result of its broad phrasing and subsequent interpretation.
More than a hundred people have been arrested, including a number of notable democracy activists, the majority of whom have been denied bail and might face life in jail if convicted.
It has also fundamentally altered Hong Kong’s common law legal landscape, which had previously been isolated from the authoritarian mainland — a development that international corporations and law firms are closely monitoring.
For the first time, China claims jurisdiction over some national security situations, and the law authorizes mainland security agents to operate freely in the city.
In addition to the precedent of no jury trial, the presumption of bail has been abolished for national security crimes.
In his application, Tong’s legal counsel Philip Dykes argued that trial by jury was “not only a protection against tyranny but also an insurance that the criminal law in its application in a case will conform to the ordinary man’s idea of what if fair and just”.
The Justice Department’s external counsel, Jenkin Suen, contended that “jury trial is not a constitutional privilege” and that the decision was made in accordance with “prosecutorial independence.”
Tong is the only individual accused of a specifically violent crime thus far. All other national security accusations have been brought against an accused because of his or her political beliefs or speech.
Tong faces one count of terrorism and one count of secession — the latter because he was allegedly flying a banner that displayed the popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times”.
He is also charged with hazardous driving.
On June 23, his trial is set to begin.
COVER IMAGE VIA JAPAN TIMES
With AFP inputs.