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Hong Kong court to give first national security trial verdict

HONG CONG: On Tuesday, a Hong Kong court will set a mark on the city’s future legal landscape when it delivers its verdict at its first trial, using China’s national security law to root out dissent.

One of the key elements of the verdict will determine whether the hanging of the flag of popular protest can be considered an act of secession, one of the new crimes in the field of national security, which lasts until life in prison.

Tong Yin-kit, 24, is accused of incitement to division and terrorism after riding a motorcycle into police under a protest flag during a rally on July 1 last year, the day after the national security law went into effect.

The flag read “Free Hong Kong, the Revolution of Our Time,” a slogan used during the massive and often violent pro-democracy protests that rocked the city two years ago.

The 15-day trial, which took place without a jury, is a significant departure from the financial center’s common law tradition, and will be reviewed by three judges selected by the city leader to prosecute national security crimes.

The verdict will provide clues to how Hong Kong’s judiciary will interpret Beijing’s broadly worded security law and whether the semi-autonomous city’s courts will become more like those in authoritarian mainland China.

More than 60 people have been charged under the law, including some of the city’s most prominent democracy activists, such as Jimmy Lai, owner of the closed Apple Daily.

Most of the accused are now in jail awaiting trial.

The prosecution argued that Tong, a former waiter, was pursuing a “political agenda” that caused “great harm to society” and therefore fit the bar for terrorism.

Prosecutors said the flag he flew was conducive to Hong Kong’s independence and, therefore, was separatist.

He also faces charges of dangerous driving.

– Is the slogan illegal now? –

Days of testimony were held on the flag, university professors were summoned from both sides to explain the meaning of the slogan.

Defense experts argued that the slogan meant a lot to different people in a leaderless protest movement that included a wide range of political views, from people who advocate genuine independence from China to those who want more democracy and police accountability.

“It’s actually quite difficult, traumatic, or even misleading to think that one idea means only one thing in my mind under any circumstance,” said Francis Lee, head of the School of Journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who was called in as a defense witness.

The overwhelming majority of those accused under security law were arrested for expressing political views that the authorities believed are currently illegal.

A decision in favor of the prosecution will illustrate how limited political freedom of speech is in Hong Kong and provide legal support for the criminalization of dissent.

In mainland China, opaque courts are held accountable to the Communist Party, and a conviction is almost guaranteed, especially in cases involving politics or national security.

Hong Kong maintains an internationally recognized common law system, which is the foundation of its business center status.

But the security law radically altered the city’s political and legal landscape, which China has pledged to preserve key freedoms and autonomy upon its return in 1997.

China has jurisdiction over some cases and for the first time allowed its security agents to operate openly in Hong Kong.

It also allows cases to be tried by judges rather than juries, and those arrested are denied bail in most cases.

The city’s justice minister referred to the no jury clause for the Tong trial, arguing that the safety of the jury could be jeopardized in Hong Kong’s hectic political landscape.

Tong pleaded not guilty to all charges and did not appear in court. – AFP

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