More clarity required following judgment in first Hong Kong security law trial
- A court’s broad interpretation of actions taken by a motorcyclist and the meaning of a slogan on a flag he displayed has answered some questions but raised others
The passing of the national security law more than a year ago marked the beginning of a new era for Hong Kong’s legal system. The law, enacted by Beijing, is expressed in wide terms and many questions have arisen over its application.
The first trial under the legislation was much anticipated. There were hopes the ruling of the court would shed light on the law’s implementation and scope.
A panel of three judges convicted Leon Tong Ying-kit, 24, of inciting secession and terrorism. He faces a sentence of up to life imprisonment.
The 62-page judgment shed some light on the judicial approach likely to be adopted to the law. But many questions remain.
Man found guilty in Hong Kong’s first national security law trial
Tong rode a motorcycle through police check lines in Wan Chai during protests on July 1 last year, a day after the passing of the security law. He ignored calls to stop and eventually collided with officers, injuring three of them.
This might have been treated as a simple case of dangerous driving, but he had also displayed a flag from the bike bearing the slogan: “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”, popular among anti-government protesters during civil unrest in 2019. This led to the case taking on a different dimension.
The meaning of the phrase became a focal point during the trial, with expert evidence for both the prosecution and the defence. The court’s finding that the slogan was capable of bearing a secessionist meaning was sufficient for a conviction, the judges said.
They also found Tong to have intended to convey that meaning and to have incited others. The ruling leaves some doubt as to the legal status of the slogan. The court took into consideration the context and the manner in which Tong displayed the flag. But it is clear from the judgment that use of the phrase carries legal risks. Much will depend on the intention behind its use and the circumstances of each case.
Tong’s conviction on the terrorism charge was based on a finding that his riding of the motorcycle involved serious violence and caused grave harm to society. His actions, the judges said, intimidated the public and were in pursuit of a political agenda. The court has adopted a broad interpretation of terrorism and set the threshold for this very serious offence at a relatively low level.
Some in Hong Kong will welcome the court’s broad application of the law. Others will be concerned about the implications for freedom of speech. There is much room for discussion. But the threatening telephone call targeting the judges must be condemned.
This is the first security law case and it is only at the Court of First Instance level. An appeal is likely. There are also many more cases in the pipeline. The judgment, therefore, is only an initial step. It answers some questions but raises others. There is a long way to go in resolving doubts and providing clarity.