Tong Ying-kit, the first person charged under Hong Kong’s contentious National Security Law, has been declared guilty in a ruling on Tuesday. Tong had allegedly run a motorbike deliberately into police officers, injuring three in the process, while displaying a black flag emblazoned with the phrase "liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times." The three-judge panel saw these as acts of succession and terrorism, as was argued by government prosecutor Anthony Chau.
Justice Toh noted that the phrase risked inciting others to commit succession. During the sentencing, he also said that Tong’s slogan implied separation between mainland China and Hong Kong and thus was aware of the secessionist tone. Furthermore, the accused crashing into the police was acting to intimidate the public to fulfill his political aims, he said. Tong pleaded not guilty on all charges and showed little reaction on hearing the verdict. However, hearing some voices of encouragement while leaving the court, he waved his hand at supporters seated in the public gallery.
The protest flag and the interpretation of its slogan have been central in the case. The case saw debates on various topics including Chinese history, the US civil rights movement as well as Malcolm X to determine whether “liberate Hong Kong” was a subversive phrase. Both prosecution and defense also argued over the history, semantics, and context of the slogan, which was also popular during the pro-democracy anti-government protests in 2019. The slogan was chanted in the streets, painted on walls, posted online, and printed on pamphlets, books, t-shirts, and coffee mugs.
Tong’s lawyer, Clive Grossman, had argued that the phrase has multiple interpretations creating a desire for freedom and democracy among others. The defense called two expert witnesses to analyze the slogan’s meanings. The experts analyzed various sources, upon examining over 25 million posts, they claimed that no links were found between the slogan and Hong Kong’s independence. Prosecutor Chau contested this observation, arguing that empirical data analysis would not assist the court in understanding the slogan’s meaning on account of such analysis being irrelevant and unreliable.
Additional charges of dangerous driving causing bodily harm have also been levied against the accused, for which he faces up to seven years in jail. The defense said that Tong had not undertaken terrorist activity using his motorbike and that an alleged shield thrown by a policeman could have resulted in the collision. The acts for which Tong is being charged occurred on July 1, 2020, briefly after the National Security Law was passed. The verdict has followed a 15-day trial and could mean a lifetime of prison for the 24-year-old former waiter. The sentence will be announced on July 29, Thursday.
Furthermore, the trial sentence was carried out in the absence of a jury, which goes against Hong Kong’s general judicial practice. Critics note that the city’s legal traditions which include the presumption of innocence, presumption of bail, and right to a jury are under strain. The defense team had appealed for a jury but was denied by Hong Kong’s justice secretary. The secretary cited risk to jurors’ and their families’ safety under the city’s sensitive political atmosphere to deny those appeals. Tong was also denied bail.
Since the National Security Law came into effect in 2020, over 100 people have been arrested in Hong Kong. As of July 27, 2021, 138 people have been arrested of which 76 have been charged under the law. These include students, journalists, lawyers, former lawmakers, and pro-democracy politicians. Three companies have also been charged. The government has claimed that all these prosecutions were under the ambit of law and were addressed independently. They further denied that legal enforcement was connected to the political stance, profession, or background of those charged.
According to Nathan Law, a former Hong Kong lawmaker and pro-democracy activist, Tong’s case is a political show trial. Law, who had fled the city and now lives in the UK where he has been granted asylum, also accused the government of hand-picking judges to ensure the ruling of their choice. The three judges Esther Toh, Anthea Pang, and Wilson Chan who preceded the trial were picked by Hong Kong city’s leader Carrie Lam.
Chief Executive of Hong Kong watch, a rights group, Benedict Rogers sees the ruling as an attack on free expression and mourns that the global financial Hub that was Hong Kong has been reduced to little more than a police state.
The law has reduced the region’s and made it far easier to punish activists and political dissenters. It was passed in light of a series of large pro-democracy protests that have shaken the country in recent years. The law has been heavily criticized but Beijing has defended that law saying that it was required to bring stability. City leader Carrie Lam has called the law crucial in moving from the chaos of the 2019 protest movement.
China’s growing intervention in Hong Kong has been seen as a bullying exercise by many in Hong Kong and around the world. Critics point to the fact that Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement.
This ensured certain freedoms for Hong Kong in terms of freedom of speech and assembly, an independent judiciary, and some democratic rights, which are different from those practised in mainland China. These principles were noted in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which was to remain in effect until 2047.
With Beijing passing the National Security Law in June last year, the two systems principle has come under attack; legal experts believe that the law fundamentally affects the region’s legal system. The law has provisions for secret trials (Article 41), trials without a jury (Article 46) as well as handpicking of judges by Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is under Beijing’s chain of command.
Image Credits: AP/ Vincent Yu
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