With new conviction, Hong Kong uses security law to restrict speech


HONG KONG – A Hong Kong court on Monday convicted an activist of inciting secession for shouting pro-independence slogans during a series of protests, underlining the power of a sweeping national security law to punish speeches.

The activist, Ma Chun-man, had argued that he did not call for Hong Kong’s independence from China, but rather wanted to show that free speech still exists under of the law, which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020. It will. be sentenced on November 11.

Critics say Mr. Ma’s conviction shows that the National Security Law is being used to silence political dissent.

“The government is trying to use the NSL to stamp out certain forms of speech,” said Thomas E. Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University. “This is a critical function of the government’s use of the NSL over the past 15 months. As the case against Ma shows, prosecutors continue to bring serious charges against people who say things the government doesn’t like.

In addition to security lawsuits, Hong Kong authorities have aggressively used older measures against thousands of people who have been arrested as part of the sometimes violent protest movement that began in mid-2019. . Dozens of leading activists have been convicted of illegal assembly, including seven who were sentenced this month to prison terms of up to one year for a July 1 protest.

The Security Law, however, goes far beyond previous laws in that it provides a powerful new tool to suppress dissent. Here’s why it’s different and what other business should be worn.

Mr. Ma, 30, is the second defendant to stand trial under the Security Act. The first, Tong Ying-kit, was convicted in July of terrorism and inciting secession after he crashed his motorcycle with police while carrying a flag with a slogan which a court said was an appeal. at the separation of Hong Kong from China. Mr. Tong, a former restaurant worker, was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Unlike the first trial, which covered both an act of speech and an act of violence, Mr. Ma was charged only because of the words he spoke and posted on placards during peaceful protests and interviews in the city. over the past year.

Its chanted slogans included “People of Hong Kong, establish our state” and “Hong Kong independence: the only way out”. Another of his slogans, “Free Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time,” was the same one Mr. Tong was convicted of using.

Beijing enacted the law in late June 2020 after a year of widespread protests in Hong Kong. Previous push for the city to put in place its own safety legislation was dropped after a mass protest in 2003.

The Chinese central government then took the initiative, secretly drafting the law it imposed on Hong Kong.

The Security Law introduces certain elements of the Chinese socialist legal system into the Hong Kong common law system. More than a year after the status was unveiled, the system is still under development, but some elements are clear.

The law targets terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces. Its language is broad and brings many changes to the Hong Kong legal system. It sets up an extensive infrastructure in the city, including a security committee that includes the Hong Kong director general and Beijing’s highest representative. Chinese security forces are allowed to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time.

Perhaps the most significant are the changes to the city’s justice system.

Hong Kong’s managing director now selects judges authorized to handle security cases. The power to interpret the law has been given to the Chinese central government, which means that the courts in Hong Kong have little ability to moderate it. Complicated cases can now be tried in mainland China, although this provision has not yet been used.

The law now makes it much more difficult for defendants to get bail, and most of the 100 people who have been charged under the measure remain in prison. The vast majority of those charged have been charged with speech offenses, including saying or writing things at trial calling for Hong Kong independence or actions of other countries, such as sanctions from the United States, found to be harmful to Hong Kong.

The security law helped curb protests in Hong Kong and silenced much of the open dissent that was once common here.

Most of the leading activists are either in detention or in exile. Others have censored what they say publicly. Dozens of civil society groups, including protest organizers and pro-democracy unions, have shut down because they have become the subject of national security investigations or fear their work will make them a target .

One of the city’s largest newspapers, Apple Daily, was forced to shut down in June after authorities froze its bank accounts and several senior editors and executives were arrested in connection with an investigation by national security.

Censorship of films has increased and new rules are expected to be adopted this year, allowing authorities to retroactively ban films that had previously been approved.

Pro-government politicians have warned that some artwork in the city’s new M + Museum could violate security law. Some books have also come under close scrutiny and members of a speech therapists union have been accused of publishing seditious material in children’s books describing the security forces as wolves.

The United States and other Western governments have strongly criticized the security law and several, like Australia, have suspended extradition agreements with Hong Kong. The United States has also imposed sanctions on several central government officials in Hong Kong and China for the crackdown in Hong Kong. China retaliated with sanctions against Americans, including Wilbur Ross, the former secretary of commerce.

China has ignored foreign criticism of the security law, which it says has brought the necessary stability to Hong Kong after years of turmoil. Hong Kong Managing Director Carrie Lam, in an interview broadcast last Wednesday by Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK, said the city’s international reputation has been damaged by misinterpretations of the law.

“Hong Kong’s international reputation has suffered some damage because many foreign politicians, organizations and Western media have amplified the idea that the correct application of the National Security Law is tantamount to suppressing human rights and freedom, ”she said.

“The Hong Kong government needs to explain more about this.”

This fall, Hong Kong courts are set to try Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, and other editors and executives at his company on security law charges accusing them of colluding with foreign forces by call on the United States to enact sanctions against Hong Kong.

Two other people who have pleaded guilty to national security charges, activist Andy Li and paralegal Chan Tsz-wah, are expected to testify. They have not yet been sentenced.

The most significant case under the law concerns 47 politicians and activists who have been charged with conspiring to subversion for a campaign platform that called for blocking the Hong Kong government’s agenda and forcing Ms Lam to resign. .

They should be tried this year. Their bail hearings in March lasted so long that some defendants were hospitalized with exhaustion, drawing criticism from legal experts over the messy process.

Since the protests began in mid-June 2019, police have arrested more than 10,000 people, and more than 2,700 of them have been prosecuted. Ms Lam said this month that Hong Kong would build a “mega courtroom” to deal with the city’s lack of judicial space.

Joy Dong contributed reporting.

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