The trial of the first person charged under Hong Kong’s National Security Law wrapped up yesterday, with the prosecution seeking to designate a slogan popular during 2019 protests as subversive in a crucial test of the territory’s rule of law.
Former waiter Tong Ying-kit (唐英杰), 24, has pleaded not guilty to charges of terrorism, inciting secession and dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm on July 1 last year, shortly after the law was enacted.
As the first national security case conducted in open court, Tong’s case could set precedents on the handling of national security law cases for the more than 120 other people charged, including prominent democracy advocates.
The verdict is to be delivered on Tuesday next week by a panel of three judges — Esther Toh (杜麗冰), Anthea Pang (彭寶琴) and Wilson Chan (陳嘉信) — who were picked by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) to hear national security cases.
Tong faces up to life in prison, as set out in the law. Someone convicted of a “grave” national security offense could be jailed for at least 10 years, the law says.
Tong was denied bail and a jury, factors that stoked concern among Western governments and rights groups as a significant departure from century-old common law traditions.
The court had cited the safety of jurors and their family members in denying trial by jury. Defense lawyers argued that the right to a jury was a “hallowed principle” of the common law system.
On July 1 last year, a day after the law came into effect, Tong rode a motorcycle with the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” fluttering on a flag from the back as he drove into a group of police officers, injuring three of them.
He was arrested and charged with “incitement to secession,” as well as terrorism and dangerous driving.
Tong has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The interpretation of the protest slogan, which was spray-painted on walls and chanted regularly during protests that roiled the territory in 2019, has been at the heart of the trial.
In his closing submission, government prosecutor Anthony Chau (周天行) argued that Tong had displayed the flag to incite others to commit secession, including protesters gathered nearby, some of whom clapped as Tong rode past.
He also said that Tong had used his motorcycle as a “lethal weapon” and the slogan on his flag showed he was “pursuing a political agenda.”
The government has long held that the slogan suggests a call for independence, which would contravene the National Security Law, although no legal ruling has been made on that interpretation.
Tong’s defense lawyer, Clive Grossman, yesterday said that it was a phrase with “multiple interpretations,” including the desire for freedom and democracy.
Much of the trial involved debate between professors drawing on a range of topics, including ancient Chinese history, the US civil rights movement and Malcolm X, to ascertain whether the “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan is subversive.
Two expert witnesses called by the defense to analyze the slogan’s meaning, drawing upon sources including an examination of more than 2 million online posts, found “no substantial link” between the slogan and Hong Kong independence, Grossman said.
However, Chau challenged that, saying this “empirical data analysis is irrelevant and not reliable,” and could not assist the court in understanding the meaning of the slogan.
The defense argued that Tong had not undertaken a terrorist act with his motorcycle.
A shield allegedly thrown by a police officer as he rode by could have been a reason for the “accident or a collision” with the officers, Grossman said.
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