Rock Ronald Rozario
Updated: September 10, 2021 03:24 PM GMT
A slogan is seen on a lamp post in Britain on July 31. A court has ruled that the phrase itself was capable of inciting others to secession by sentencing 24-year-old Tong Ying-kit to nine years in prison. (Photo: AFP)
Global rights group Amnesty International has deplored the first sentence under Hong Kong’s draconian national security law as a “hammer blow to free speech.”
A Hong Kong court sentenced Tong Ying-kit, 24, a former waiter turned activist, to nine years in prison on charges of “inciting secession” and “acts of terrorism” on July 30, reported Hong Kong Free Press.
The sentence was handed down by a special court constituted by Hong Kong’s Catholic chief executive Carrie Lam to deal with cases under national security legislation. Tong reportedly pleaded not guilty.
He is the first person to be sentenced under the Beijing-imposed national security law enacted last in June 2020 in the former British colony.
Tong was arrested on July 1 for allegedly riding a motorbike into police officers while flying a flag with a protest slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” amid pro-democracy protests that engulfed the Chinese-ruled territory.
"We consider that this overall term should sufficiently reflect the defendant's culpability in the two offenses and the abhorrence of society, at the same time achieving the deterrent effect required," judges said in a written judgement.
The ruling essentially outlaws a popular slogan widely used by the pro-democracy movement
In a statement on July 30, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra said the sentencing of Tong confirms fears that the national security law was not just a tool to terrorize government critics in Hong Kong but also a weapon to be used for their incarceration.
“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. This point alone is a deeply ominous sign of what the national security law will bring in the future,” Mishra said.
She said that Tong should never have been charged and termed the ruling as a “disturbing decision to bring national security charges against him for brandishing a flag featuring a common protest slogan — a move that represents a hammer blow to freedom of speech.”
Charging Tong for displaying a political slogan is “a violation of international human rights law,” she added.
Mishra pointed out that although the national security law includes a general guarantee to respect human rights, it lacks any exemption for legitimate expression or protest.
“And as the legislation focuses on national security rather than individuals’ rights and freedoms, the judgment at no point considered Tong’s rights to freedom of expression and protest,” she said.
Hong Kong has seen an intensified crackdown on pro-democracy politicians, activists, rights advocates, journalists and media since the national security law was enacted. Since then 100 people have been arrested and jailed including Catholic media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai, media reports say.
Apple Daily, a popular pro-democracy newspaper run by Lai, was forced to shut down as the authorities arrested its editors and froze bank accounts, making it unable to operate and pay staff.
Media have reported that about 10,000 Hong Kong citizens have fled to Taiwan to escape charges and arrests under the security law, while many with British passports continue to leave the city for Britain.
The protests often turned violent while the government resorted to heavy-handed crackdowns
Hong Kong was entitled certain freedoms including democratic rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary and legislature under the Basic Law when Britain handed over the city to China in 1997 under an agreement known as the “one country two systems” framework.
The territory has been in political turmoil since 2019 with mass protests as pro-democracy Hong Kong citizens reacted angrily to what they called a significant erosion of their freedoms and democratic rights under the pro-Beijing administration of Carrie Lam.
The protests often turned violent while the government resorted to heavy-handed crackdowns.
The national security law arbitrarily criminalizes any form of anti-government dissent, protest and assembly as acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
The communist regime defended the legislation as a move to check sedition and ensure stability in the territory.