The first person to be tried under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law faces life in prison after being found guilty on Tuesday of inciting secession and terrorism, in a landmark court ruling that is likely to have profound implications for the city’s legal system.
Tong Ying-kit, 24, was found guilty of terrorism for crashing his motorcycle into a group of police officers last year, injuring three. He was also found guilty of a second charge, incitement to commit secession, for carrying a large black banner emblazoned with the popular anti-government protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”
A three judge panel selected by Hong Kong’s leader ruled that Tong’s actions constituted a “deliberate challenge against the police” and were intended to cause “great harm to society.”
As the first trial under the new legislation, which was promulgated by Beijing on June 30 last year, Tong’s case is widely seen as a litmus test for how the law will be implemented and interpreted in court in the coming months.
Much of the case had hinged on the judge’s interpretation of the protest flag Tong was carrying. Throughout the 15 day trial, the prosecution and defense argued over the semantics, history and context of the flag’s slogan – a common rallying call during the months-long pro-democracy, anti-government protests of 2019 – with several expert witnesses weighing in.
The prosecution pointed to Malcolm X and the Cultural Revolution as examples in their argument, leading the judges to ban a number of questions owing to lack of relevance.
On Tuesday, the judges made clear the slogan was “intended to communicate secessionist meaning” and was “capable of inciting others to commit secession,” potentially laying the groundwork for future convictions related to the formerly mass protest movement.
As the judges announced the verdict, Tong showed little reaction. He later waved a hand at supporters in the public gallery when they shouted encouragement as he left court.
His sentencing is scheduled for Thursday. Under the national security law, which criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, Tong faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
As of Monday, police have arrested 138 people and charged 76 under the law. Those arrested include students, activists, former lawmakers, journalists, and lawyers. Three companies have also been charged.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied that the law’s vague parameters have been used to censor free speech or stifle political dissent. Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, has defended the law as a “crucial step to ending the chaos and violence” of the 2019 protest movement and ensuring “long-term stability and prosperity in Hong Kong.”
Tong had pleaded not guilty to all charges, which stemmed from an incident on July 1, 2020, just one day after the law was enacted. He was denied bail and his trial held without a jury, in a significant departure from the common law traditions that Hong Kong’s legal system had previously followed.
As a former British colony, Hong Kong’s legal system is heavily influenced by British common law, and has relied on trial by jury throughout its history. But under the security law, Beijing can take over national security cases in special circumstances – and if it involves “state secrets or public order,” it can mandate a closed-door trial with no jury.
To critics of the legislation, Tong’s conviction offers further proof of Beijing’s tightening grip over the semi autonomous territory.
“This is a political show trial,” said Nathan Law, a former Hong Kong lawmaker and prominent pro-democracy activist who fled the city and has been granted asylum in the United Kingdom. “The government handpicked the judges so that the result of the trials can best serve the political interest of the government.”
Law added that the judicial system in Hong Kong had been “weaponized to suppress,” and that the city’s “right to free expression is (now) severely curtailed.”