First trial on national security law opens in Hong Kong

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Tong Ying-kit arrives at a court in a police van in Hong Kong, on July 6, 2020.
Tong Ying-kit arrives at a court in a police van in Hong Kong, on July 6, 2020.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Vincent Yu

The first person to stand trial under Hong Kong's national security law pleaded not guilty Wednesday to the allegation he was inciting secession by driving a motorcycle into police officers while carrying a protest flag.

Tong Ying-kit was arrested on July 1, 2020, a day after the national security law took effect, for allegedly driving into the crowd of officers while bearing a flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.” Several officers were knocked over and three sustained injuries.

Tong pleaded not guilty to three charges — terrorism, incitement of secession and dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm.

The first national security trial comes as China tightens its grip around the semi-autonomous Chinese city following political unrest in 2019. Tong's trial will set the tone for how Hong Kong will handle national security offenses. So far, more than 100 people have been arrested under the security law, including prominent pro-democracy activists such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

The “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” slogan was often chanted during anti-government demonstrations in 2019 by protesters demanding broader democratic freedoms.

China responded to the protests with a number of measures suppressing dissent, including the national security law, which criminalises subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion endangering national security.

The security law makes calls for Hong Kong independence illegal, and a government notice last July said the “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” slogan connotes a call for independence and subversion of state power.

A court ruled last month that Tong will stand trial without a jury, a diversion from Hong Kong's common law traditions. Under the national security law, a panel of three judges can replace jurors and the city’s leader has the power to designate judges to hear such cases.

The law carries a maximum penalty of life in prison for serious offenders.

Tong is standing trial at the High Court, where sentences are not capped.