The first person charged and tried under Hong Kong’s draconian national security law has been sentenced to nine years in jail after he was convicted of secession and terrorism for crashing his motorbike into police officers while flying a protest flag.
Tong Ying-kit, a 24-year-old former waiter, was convicted on Tuesday by a three-judge panel appointed by Hong Kong’s leader to hear national security cases. On Thursday, he was sentenced to six and a half years for the secession offence and eight years for terrorism, with two and a half years of the latter sentence to be served consecutively.
The landmark case comes amid a continuing crackdown on almost any form of opposition to China’s rule over Hong Kong.
On Thursday, a trial began against a radio DJ accused of sedition – under rarely used colonial era laws – for comments made during the 2019 protests. On Friday, police revealed they had arrested an 18-year-old for posting calls to boycott advertisers on a pro-Beijing TV station, and had launched an investigation into people who booed the Chinese national anthem during a public Olympics broadcast.
After a 15-day trial, Tong was found guilty of terrorism for crashing his motorcycle into three riot police, and of inciting secession for carrying a flag on the vehicle bearing the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.
The incident took place on 1 July 2020, less than 24 hours after the national security law was enacted, as thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets in protest and were met with a heavy police response. Tong maintained the collision was accidental.
In sentencing, the judges found his crimes to be serious and secessionist in nature and not mitigated by his status as breadwinner for his family, or his remorse, given he had pleaded not guilty.
“We consider that this overall term should sufficiently reflect the defendant’s culpability in the two offences and the abhorrence of society, at the same time, achieving the deterrent effect required,” the sentencing said.
Much of Tong’s trial was spent on arguments over the meaning of the “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan, which was ubiquitous during mass protests in 2019.
The ruling sets a steep precedent for cases of speech crimes under the national security law, with the judges finding the slogan to be secessionist because it was “capable” of being interpreted as such.
The judges also determined that even though Tong’s case was “not the worst of its kind” because he had acted alone in making what they saw to be a “general call” for secession without any elaborate plan, it still met the threshold for a serious crime with a statutory penalty of five to 10 years in jail.
Legal analysts warned it would drastically increase a chilling effect sweeping Hong Kong after the national security law’s introduction.
“It’s a strong message to everyone Hong Kong that … in a particular circumstance or a politically sensitive context, if you show any slogans or expression not in favour of the government they will be interpreted as capable of inciting secession, and endangering national security,” said Eric Lai, a Hong Kong law fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.
Lai said the designation of the slogan as serious in nature was “disturbing”, and did not bode well for the 47 politicians and activists awaiting trial for holding unofficial primary elections that were later deemed illegal.
“Mr Tong’s case will set a threshold for other cases related to speech crimes, like the primary election cases – they will likely receive a much higher sentence,” said Lai. “For the 47, the prosecutors charged them not just with words … but also conspiracy to organise – through the primary election – subversion.”
Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, Yamini Mishra, said the national security law included a “general guarantee to respect human rights” but had no exemptions for legitimate expression or protest.
“The sentencing of Tong Ying-kit to nine years confirms fears that the national security law is not merely a tool to instil terror into government critics in Hong Kong; it is a weapon that will be used to incarcerate them.”
At a mitigation hearing on Thursday, Tong’s defence team said his behaviour had been stupid but the crash was not intentional, and he was the only person who sustained a broken bone. They said there was no evidence Tong’s actions had incited any action other than applause from onlookers.
Prosecutors had urged the judges to consider mainland Chinese law in determining Tong’s sentence, but the judges rejected this saying they would be following usual interpretations of fixed-term imprisonments under the national security law, RTHK reported.
Tong’s sentencing followed the start of the trial against Tam Tak-chi – a former radio host also known as Fast Beat – who has been in jail since September. Tam is facing eight counts of uttering seditious words and six other charges related to comments while manning street booths at the 2019 mass protests.
Prosecutors said he chanted other slogans including “corrupt cops, may your whole family die”, calling for the downfall of the Chinese Communist party and making “baseless accusations” that the Hong Kong police had beaten people and made arbitrary arrests.
On Friday, Hong Kong police revealed they were also investigating the booing of China’s national anthem by members of a crowd at a Hong Kong shopping mall, who had gathered to watch an Olympics broadcast on Monday.
During the podium ceremony, when the Olympic foil fencer Cheung Ka-long was presented with Hong Kong’s second-ever gold medal and the national anthem of China was played, some people in the crowd booed and others shouted “we are Hong Kong”.
Police said an investigation had been launched and they would review security camera footage from the mall, the South China Morning Post reported. Disrespecting the national anthem was formally outlawed in June 2020 under a controversial law that critics said added to the ongoing repression of free speech and dissent in Hong Kong.
Since the introduction of the national security law, authorities have arrested more than 128 people for related alleged offences and targeted opposing politicians and activists, media outlets and employees, churches, schools, and unions. On Friday, police also said they had arrested two men, including an 18-year-old high school student, over Facebook posts urging people to boycott businesses advertising with a free-to-air TV station considered to be pro-Beijing.
The teenager was held on suspicion of conspiracy to commit criminal intimidation by pressuring advertisers to pull ads and cause financial or reputational damage the station, and of inciting others to assemble unlawfully. The other man, 26, was accused of inciting others to attack staff from the station, as well as police officers and their families, police said.
Additional reporting by Jason Lu