No jury as Hong Kong's first 'national security' trial begins

The first trial under Hong Kong’s new national security law began on Wednesday without a jury, a watershed moment for the financial hub’s fast-changing legal landscape.

Tong Ying-kit, 24, was arrested the day after the sweeping new law came into effect when he allegedly drove his motorcycle into a group of police officers during protests on July 1 last year.

Footage showed his motorcycle was flying a flag that read “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, a popular pro-democracy protest slogan that is now deemed illegal under the security law.

Tong faces charges of inciting secession and terrorism, as well as a charge of dangerous driving.

He pleaded not guilty to all three charges as the trial began on Wednesday morning.

“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” was little used until huge and often violent democracy protests convulsed Hong Kong for months in 2019 where it became the dominant rallying cry.

For some, it meant advocating for full independence. But for many others, it was a broader call for democracy or greater autonomy as well as a cry of frustration at Beijing’s rule.

Tong’s trial is a key legal test for whether the slogan is now illegal.

As they opened their case, prosecutor Anthony Chau said his team would show the phrase meant separating Hong Kong from China, or seeking “regime change”.

Chau added that the terrorism charge was justified because Tong was trying to coerce the government “to pursue a political agenda”.

– Trial by judges –

Two courts rejected Tong’s plea to have his case heard by a jury, which his legal team had argued was a constitutional right given that he faces a life sentence if convicted.

Trial by jury has been a cornerstone of Hong Kong’s 176-year-old common law system and is described by the city’s judiciary on its website as one of the legal system’s “most important features”.

But the national security law, which was penned in Beijing and imposed on Hong Kong last year after the democracy protests, allows for cases to be tried by three specially selected judges.

The city’s justice secretary invoked the no-jury clause for Tong’s trial arguing that juror safety could be compromised in Hong Kong’s febrile political landscape, a decision first revealed by AFP.

Tong’s legal team has yet to decide whether to bring their case to Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal.

However, the wording of Beijing’s security law makes clear that it trumps any local regulations in the event of a dispute, something successive court rulings have already upheld.

Tong’s case is unusual because he is the only Hong Konger so far charged under the security law with an explicitly violent act.

More than 60 people have now been charged under the law, including some of the city’s best-known democracy activists, but their offences are related to political views or speech that authorities have declared illegal.

– City transformed –

Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have hailed the security law for successfully restoring stability after the 2019 demonstrations.

But it has also transformed the city’s political and legal landscape — which was historically firewalled from the authoritarian mainland.

The law furthermore grants China jurisdiction over some cases and empowers mainland security agents to operate openly in the semi-autonomous city for the first time.

It has removed the presumption of bail for non-violent crimes. Those charged have to instead prove to judges they will no longer pose any sort of national security threat. 

The vast majority of those charged have been remanded into custody. Those released have faced a host of restrictions including house arrest, no contact with foreign officials and no media interviews or social media.

The law has also caused jitters within Hong Kong’s business community. Last week, it was invoked to freeze the assets of Apple Daily, a popular pro-democracy newspaper.

Under the security law, no court order or conviction is required for the government to freeze a company’s assets and Apple Daily has since warned it will likely stop publishing this weekend.

Critics, including many Western nations, say China has broken its “One Country, Two Systems” promise that Hong Kong could maintain key freedoms after its handover from Britain in 1997.

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