Hong Kong Jails Activist for 9 Years in First Security Trial

(Bloomberg) -
hong kong protester sentenced
Tong Ying-kit arriving at court earlier this month. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)

A Hong Kong court sentenced the first person convicted under a Beijing-drafted national-security law to nine years in prison, a ruling that illustrates the high stakes facing dozens of pro-democracy activists awaiting similar trials.

Tong Ying-kit, a waiter, faced as long as life in prison after being found guilty of incitement to secession and engaging in terrorist activities earlier this week. The convictions stem from an incident last year when Tong drove a motorcycle carrying a flag with the banned slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” into a group of police officers, injuring three.

Tong was given 6.5 years for the secession charge and another eight years for the terrorism offense, served concurrently in part for a total of nine years, a panel of High Court judges ruled Friday. “The punishment must have as its aim a general deterrent effect on the community as a whole, as well as a specific deterrent effect on the individual in question,” wrote the judges, Anthea Pang, Esther Toh and Wilson Chan.

The ruling came the same day police arrested a man who allegedly was booing China’s national anthem at a Hong Kong shopping mall during the live broadcast of an Olympic gold medal ceremony.

Tong’s lawyer, Clive Grossman, said his client would appeal both the conviction and the sentence.

The government welcomed the guilty verdict and will study the sentencing to consider its next steps, Secretary for Security Chris Tang told reporters after the ruling. Prosecutors in Hong Kong can appeal a sentence that a court hands down to seek a longer one.

The U.S. criticized the conduct of the trial, which it said “ensured an unjust outcome.” In a written statement, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. was deeply concerned that Chinese officials were deploying the security law “as a political weapon to silence dissenting voices in Hong Kong and suppress protected rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Yamini Mishra, Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International, said: “The ruling essentially outlaws a popular slogan widely used by the pro-democracy movement and could enable future convictions of numerous other protesters who used it.”

Some 76 pro-democracy activists, former politicians and journalists are awaiting trial after being charged under the legislation, according to the security bureau.

The sentence was closely watched for clues on how courts in the financial hub will interpret the security law, which outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces. Beijing handed down the legislation a year ago without any debate by local lawmakers following large and occasionally violent protests in the Asian financial hub in 2019. China has credited the law with preventing a repeat of the unrest that shook the city for months.

The Group of Seven nations said Beijing failed to meet the terms of its handover agreement with the U.K. by forcing the legislation on Hong Kong. The U.S. responded to the law by rolling back some special privileges granted to the city, in part making it harder to export sensitive American technology to Hong Kong, and sanctioned senior officials who oversee the territory.

Tong has been held without bail for more than a year and denied a jury trial under security-law provisions, representing a break with Hong Kong’s common law judicial tradition. He had pleaded not guilty over the incident, which occurred hours after the law had taken effect and police banned the slogan he displayed.

The “liberate” slogan has been shouted and displayed on flags by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of protesters in the city over the past two years. Exiled pro-democracy activist Nathan Law said the court’s ruling that the phrase could incite secession amounted to criminalizing speech.

The judges, who were selected from a panel chosen by pro-China Chief Executive Carrie Lam, said that by riding his motorcycle into police, Tong had sought to intimidate members of the public as part of his “political agenda.”

While prosecutors asked the court at a hearing Thursday to refer to mainland Chinese laws when considering Tong’s sentence, the judges said they would would follow Hong Kong law. Grossman, Tong’s lawyer, asked the judges for leniency, saying the public already understood the seriousness of the case.

The judges, however, said Tong’s decision to plead not guilty undercut his claims to remorse. It was a statement likely to reverberate with the dozens of defendants still awaiting trial under the security law.

“If he had pleaded guilty, that would have been the greatest manifestation of such remorse and appropriate reduction in sentence would have been available to him,” the judges said.