The first person to be charged under Hong Kong’s controversial national security laws was found guilty on Tuesday in a landmark verdict.
Tang Ying-kit was found guilty of inciting secession and terrorism after crashing his motorbike into police waving a banner calling for the “liberation” of Hong Kong.
More than 100 people have been arrested since the law came into force in 2019.
It reduces Hong Kong’s autonomy and makes it easier to punish activists.
Beijing insists the widely criticized law, which comes after a series of mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, is necessary to bring stability to the city.
Tuesday’s verdict, the final result of a 15-day trial, means Tong faces a life sentence. His sentencing will take place at a later date.
He was convicted without a jury, a departure from Hong Kong’s common law tradition. The defense team had argued for a jury trial, but the Hong Kong Attorney General argued that the safety of the jury would be compromised given Hong Kong’s sensitive political climate.
Release in Hong Kong
The 24-year-old was arrested in July last year after he drove his motorbike into a group of police officers on the road. At the time, he was carrying a black protest banner that read “Free Hong Kong, the revolution of the times”.
During sentencing, Judge Toh said the phrase was likely to incite others to secede, according to local media HKFP.
Judge Toh added that Tang understood the slogan to have a separatist connotation, implying that Hong Kong was separate from mainland China.
According to local reports, his failure to stop at the police checkpoint line – and eventual ramming into the police – was also deemed “willful disregard for the police”.
“The accused committed these acts with the intention of intimidating the public to achieve his political agenda,” Judge Toh said.
Dozens of journalists and members of the public filled the small courtroom as Grace Tsoi read out the verdict.
Our correspondent added that there was “total silence” as the verdict was read to Toynbee, who appeared very calm and waved to supporters before being led out of the dock.
The verdict sets the tone for future cases that may be interpreted under the law.
“The sentencing of Henry Tang is an important and ominous moment for human rights in Hong Kong,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said in a statement.
“Today’s ruling highlights the sobering fact that expressing certain political views in this city is now officially a crime punishable by a possible life sentence.”
Why is the National Security Act controversial?
As a former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, but on the principle of “one country, two systems”.
This was to guarantee certain freedoms in the region – such as freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights – that mainland China does not have.
These freedoms are enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which was supposed to last until 2047.
But in June last year, Beijing passed a national security law that lawyers and legal experts say will fundamentally change Hong Kong’s legal system.
Under the law, for example, trials can be conducted in secret (Article 41) and without a jury (Article 46). Judges can be handpicked by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (Article 44), who reports directly to Beijing.
Since the law came into force, more than 100 people – including protesters, pro-democracy politicians and journalists – have been arrested under its provisions.