Hong Kong, China: A Hong Kong court will lay down a marker on the city’s future legal landscape Tuesday when it delivers its verdict in the first trial using a national security law imposed by China to stamp out dissent.
One of the most important aspects of the decision will be whether flying a popular protest banner may be considered an act of secession, one of the new national security offenses punishable by life in prison.
Tong Ying-kit, 24, is accused of inciting secession and terrorism after crashing his motorcycle into police officers while waving a protest banner during a rally on July 1, 2017, the day after the national security law was passed.
The flag read “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times”, a ubiquitous slogan during the huge and often violent pro-democracy protests that convulsed the city two years ago.
The 15-day trial will be determined by three judges appointed by the city’s leader to try national security offenses, in a striking break from the financial hub’s common-law history.
The decision will reveal how Hong Kong’s judiciary would interpret Beijing’s broadly worded security statute, as well as whether the semi-autonomous city’s courts will become more authoritarian mainland Chinese-style tribunals.
More than 60 people have been charged as a result of the law, including some of the city’s most well-known democracy activists, including Jimmy Lai, the owner of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper.
The majority of those accused are currently incarcerated awaiting trial.
Tong, a former waiter, was accused of following a “political objective” that caused “severe harm to society” and thus matched the criteria for terrorism, according to the prosecution.
Prosecutors claimed the flag he flew was separatist because it encouraged Hong Kong’s independence.
In addition, he faces a charge of reckless driving.
Is it now prohibited to use a slogan?
Days of testimony were spent on the flag, with both sides calling university academics to explain the significance of the slogan.
The slogan meant different things to different individuals in what was a leaderless protest movement that featured a wide range of political ideas, from those desiring true independence from China to others seeking improved democracy and police accountability, according to defense specialists.
“It is actually quite difficult, quite traumatic or even misleading to think that one idea only means one thing in my mind in all circumstances,” said Francis Lee, Chinese University of Hong Kong’s journalism school head, who was called as a defense witness.
The great majority of people accused under the security statute were detained for expressing political opinions that are now considered unlawful, according to police.
A favorable verdict for the prosecution would demonstrate how severely political freedom of expression has been constrained in Hong Kong and provide legal support for the criminalization of dissent.
In mainland China, opaque courts report to the Communist Party, and conviction is almost a given, especially in instances involving politics or national security.
The core of Hong Kong’s economic hub reputation is its internationally regarded common law system.
However, the security law has drastically altered the city’s political and legal scene, despite China’s assurances that the city will retain core liberties and autonomy following its 1997 return.
China has jurisdiction in some situations and has for the first time permitted its security officers to operate freely in Hong Kong.
It also allows for crimes to be heard by judges rather than juries, and bail for those detained is frequently denied.
For Tong’s trial, the city’s justice secretary invoked the no-jury provision, claiming that juror safety could be jeopardized in Hong Kong’s volatile political climate.
Tong pleaded not guilty to all of the allegations and did not testify during the trial.