On Tuesday, the High Court of Hong Kong convicted a 24-year-old protester in the city’s first trial under Beijing’s draconian national security law, which was imposed on the territory last year.
Tong Ying-kit was found guilty on one count of inciting secession and one count of undertaking terrorist actions by a three-judge panel.
The case is expected to stand as precedent as the government moves to try the more than 115 people charged under the controversial national security law that went into effect July 1, 2020, which has been widely criticized by Western nations.
Police arrested Tong the same day the law went into effect. He was driving his motorcycle through a neighborhood with a banner that read “Liberate Hong Kong Revolution of our Times” and was apprehended after colliding with police who were attempting to stop him.
The judges found Tong guilty of committing national security charges as displaying the banner “was capable of inciting others to commit secession,” which they said was his intention, while his failure to stop for police attempting to detain him “was a deliberate challenge mounted against police, a symbol of Hong Kong’s law and order.”
Much of the case hinged on the meaning of his slogan. The defense had argued that the slogan contained several possible meanings with no one single interpretation to be understood by all who saw it mounted on his motorcycle that day.
They also argued there was no evidence that he did anything to incite others to commit crimes, let alone to encourage people to fight for Hong Kong’s secession.
However, the judges ruled that the slogan was “at the very least capable” of promoting Hong Kong’s independence from China and that due to the circumstances “it is not necessary for the court to resolve the differences” between the slogan’s possible interpretations.
“[W]e have no difficulty in coming to the sure conclusion that the Slogan as at 1 July 2020 was capable of carrying the meaning of separating the HKSAR from the PRC and was capable of inciting others to commit secession,” the judges said in the ruling.
Following a year of large pro-democracy demonstrations that brought the former British colony to a halt at times, the law was enacted last July.
The national security statute, according to Western nations and human rights organisations, was meant to put a stop to similar demonstrations before they started, with many protest organisers and pro-democracy lawmakers being detained or departing the country.
The verdict on Tuesday is expected to elicit more international censure, as well as possible punitive actions, such as the sanctions imposed by the US on Chinese officials it considers to be culpable.
Tong’s conviction, according to Amnesty International, is “a momentous and worrisome movement” for human rights in Hong Kong since it emphasises that expressing political beliefs is now a criminal punishable by harsh terms, including life imprisonment.
“Convicting Tong Ying-kit of’secession’ for flying a flag bearing a widely used political slogan is a violation of international law, which states that expression should not be criminalised unless it poses a concrete threat,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director. “This appears to be the beginning of the end for Hong Kong’s freedom of expression.”