First person charged under Hong Kong’s national security law pleads not guilty

In this file picture, Tong Ying-kit is seen arriving at the West Kowloon Court in Hong Kong on July 6, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's first trial under national security legislation imposed by Beijing has started, offering the first glimpse of how such hearings will be conducted.

The trial of waiter Tong Ying-kit began on Wednesday (June 23) in the High Court before three judges appointed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

The 24-year-old Tong, who has been held without bail for nearly a year, pleaded not guilty to charges of incitement to secession and engaging in terrorist activities over his actions during a protest.

Judges Esther Toh, Anthea Pang and Wilson Chan are presiding over the trial, which is scheduled to last 15 days.

In the early moments of the trial, Toh said that someone took a photo in the courtroom and the incident would be reported to police.

Representatives from the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK attended the opening of the trial, along with journalists and members of the public.

The case is being watched for signs of how the courts plans to handle the security law, which allows for punishments of as long as life in prison for subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers.

The former British colony's independent courts and rule of law are often credited for its success as one of the world's leading financial capitals.

An appeals court rejected Tong's bid for his trial to be heard by a jury on Tuesday, a break with Hong Kong's common law tradition. The proceedings should be held before judges because the personal safety of jurors or their relatives could be threatened, the appeals judges said in a written ruling.

"Tong Ying-kit has been denied bail and has been sitting in jail for almost a year as he waits for his trial to get underway," Mr Thomas Kellogg, the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, told Bloomberg Television.

"That's a real departure from Hong Kong's rich common law tradition, and it's much more akin to what we see on the mainland in politically charged criminal cases like this one."

Earlier this month prosecutors added an alternative charge of dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm against Tong, and he also pleaded not guilty to that. The move by prosecutors could allow them to get a conviction if they failed to get one with the terrorism charge.

"The effort to deny Tong a jury trial could set a dangerous precedent, effectively allowing the government to deny all national security law defendants the right to a jury trial if they decide that doing so is in their interest," said Mr Kellogg.

"The government has been chipping away at various due process rights for the defendants since day one."

The Group of Seven nations said China violated the terms of its handover agreement with the UK by imposing the national security law on Hong Kong last year. The US revoked many special privileges granted to the city because of the legislation and sanctioned senior officials who oversee the territory.

Tong was among several people arrested over protests held last July 1 against the legislation, which was handed down by Beijing the previous night without input from the local legislature.

He is accused of driving a motorcycle into a group of police officers, while displaying a banner reading "Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times", a popular protest slogan that authorities have banned under the security law.

The government has launched prosecutions of more than 100 people under the law, including much of the local Legislative Council's former pro-democracy opposition. Like Tong, most of them are being detained before their trials.

Among those charged is 73-year-old media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

His Apple Daily newspaper has said it plans to stop operations at the end of the week if the government does not allow access to its cash.

Separately, a lawyer from the US who scuffled with a police officer in plainclothes in 2019 was found guilty of assault on Tuesday, according to local reports. Samuel Bickett, 37, was denied bail before sentencing July 6, the South China Morning Post reported.

Bickett, who said the officer was attacking people with a baton in a subway station, wrote in a statement before the ruling that the verdict was "entirely unsupportable by both the law and the evidence in this case".

Bickett's LinkedIn profile says he worked as Asia-Pacific compliance director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch from June 2019 to last month. Individuals convicted of assaulting a police officer face up to six months in jail and a fine.

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