A pro-democracy protester was sentenced Friday to nine years in prison in the closely watched first prosecution under Hong Kong’s national security law as the ruling Communist Party tightens control over the territory.
Tong Ying-kit, 24, was convicted of inciting secession and terrorism for driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers at a July 1, 2020, rally. He carried a flag bearing the banned slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”
President Xi Jinping’s government imposed the security law on the former British colony last year following protests that erupted in mid-2019. Beijing has tried to crush a pro-democracy movement by jailing leading activists and has reduced the public’s role in picking Hong Kong’s government.
Tong’s sentence, announced by Judge Esther Toh for a three-judge panel in the Hong Kong High Court, was longer than the three years requested by the prosecution. Defense lawyers appealed for no more than 10. He faced a possible maximum of life in prison.
Critics accuse Beijing of violating the autonomy and Western-style civil liberties promised when Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 and hurting its status as a business center. Human rights activists say the security law is being abused to attack legitimate dissent.
Tong’s sentencing is a “hammer blow to free speech” and shows the law is “a tool to instill terror” in government critics, said Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director, Yamini Mishra, in a statement.
The law “lacks any exemption for legitimate expression or protest,” said Mishra. “The judgment at no point considered Tong’s rights to freedom of expression and protest.”
Officials reject the criticism and say Beijing is restoring order and instituting security protections like those of other countries. More than 100 people have been arrested under the security law.
Defense lawyers said Tong’s penalty should be light because the court hadn’t found the attack was deliberate, no one was injured and the secession-related offense qualified as minor under the law.
After the sentence was announced, Tong nodded slightly but said nothing. He was dressed in a black shirt and tie with a blue blazer as he was throughout his trial.
As he was led out of the courtroom, spectators yelled, “We will wait for you!”
After court was adjourned, a spectator yelled to his lead defense lawyer, Clive Grossman, “Mr. Grossman, appeal!”
The judges ruled Tuesday that Tong’s actions were an act of violence aimed at coercing the Hong Kong and mainland governments and intimidating the public. It said carrying the flag was an act of incitement to secession, rejecting defense arguments that Tong could be proven to be inciting secession just by using the slogan.
Tong’s trial was conducted without a jury under rules that allow an exception to Hong Kong’s British-style common law system if state secrets need to be protected or foreign forces are involved. The judges were picked by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
The crackdown followed protests that began over an extradition law proposed by Lam’s government and expanded to include other grievances and demands for more democracy. At their height, thousands of people held marches and rallies every weekend.
The last pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily, shut down last month after journalists and executives were arrested. Its owner, Jimmy Lai, is serving a 20-month prison term and faces more charges of colluding with foreigners to endanger national security.
Also last year, Hong Kong’s legislature was rearranged to guarantee a majority to Beijing-allied figures. Rules for elected officials were tightened to require them to be deemed patriotic.