Hong Kong Convicts Second Person Under National Security Law
(Bloomberg) -- A Hong Kong court convicted a second person under a Beijing-drafted national security law, reinforcing fears the legislation will be strictly interpreted amid a sweeping crackdown on political dissent.
Ma Chun-man, 31, a former food delivery worker, faces as many as seven years in prison after being found guilty on one count of incitement to secession by District Court Judge Stanley Chan. He had denied the charges.
“I believe the defendant was sincerely stating his stance when he chanted slogans in the hope that others would participate or follow,” the judge said of Ma, known locally as Captain America 2.0 for the Marvel character he’d sometimes dressed as while protesting. He will be sentenced on Nov. 11.
The two national security trials held so far have both handed down convictions and focused heavily on the defendants’ use of political slogans, adding to fears that freedom of speech is being eroded in the former British colony despite being guaranteed in the security law and the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Of the 100 people who the government has sought to prosecute under the legislation some 85% were charged with a speech-related crime, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
Hong Kong passed the Beijing-drafted law in June 2020 without any debate by local lawmakers following large and occasionally violent protests in the Asian financial hub the year before. While Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has repeatedly said the security law restored stability to the city, critics say it has diminished freedoms in the Asian financial hub.
The second conviction made it clearer to people “what is now off limits,” Steve Tsang, director of SOAS University of London’s China Institute, said on Monday.
“Hong Kong people will remain free to say whatever they like about their favorite or disliked TV stars and restaurants,” he added. “But they will have to limit what they say about politics in public or face the consequences. This is what one normally defines as suppressing free speech.”
During Ma’s four-day trial, prosecutors said he had flouted the security law by claiming calling for Hong Kong independence was his constitutional right, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported. Ma’s use of slogans such as “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” between August 15 and November 22 last year in shopping malls and media interviews was criminal, the prosecution said.
It was irrelevant whether the people who said or heard the banned words intended to carry out secession, the court ruled in a summary published after the conviction on Monday.
Despite the “liberate” slogan being shouted and displayed on flags by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of protesters in the city in recent years, it has been effectively banned under the national security law.
In July, a waiter was sentenced to nine years in jail under the legislation for driving a motorcycle into police officers while carrying a flag bearing the slogan, injuring three.
The U.S. criticized the conduct of that trial, the first under the new law, saying it “ensured an unjust outcome.” In a written statement, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. was deeply concerned that Chinese officials were deploying the security law “as a political weapon to silence dissenting voices in Hong Kong and suppress protected rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Some 155 individuals have been arrested under the vague legislation, including journalists, lawyers and academics, as well as high-profile activists including media mogul Jimmy Lai and former student leader Joshua Wong. Prominent civil society groups representing hundreds of thousand employees have also disbanded after coming under pressure from the law that outlaws collusion with foreign forces, secession, subversion and terrorist activities.
The U.S. has sanctioned several Chinese officials over their role in implementing the law, and in July issued an advisory warning to American businesses about the risks of operating in the former British colony.
On the same day as Ma’s conviction, Amnesty International announced it would leave the city by the end of the year, because the security law had made it impossible to operate without “fear of serious reprisals.”
“The law has repeatedly been used to target people who have upset the authorities for any number of reasons -- from singing political songs to discussing human rights issues in the classroom,” said Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s International Board, in a statement, adding it was “impossible to know what activities might lead to criminal sanctions.”
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