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Explainer: Hong Kong’s National Security Crackdown – Month 20

Koo Sze-yiu. File photo: League of Social Democrats, via Facebook.
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HONG KONG FREE PRESS

In February, Hong Kong’s national security police made several arrests and charged people under a colonial-era anti-sedition law in lieu of the Beijing-imposed security legislation. It also marked one year since 47 pro-democracy figures were officially indicted for allegedly conspiring to commit subversion, though a trial date remains out of sight. HKFP continues its monthly round-up of security law developments as the city struggles to cope with the fifth and worst wave of Covid-19 infections.

Anti-sedition law arrests 

Hong Kong police made numerous arrests in February over alleged crimes linked to sedition, an offence under the Crimes Ordinance which was last amended in the 1970s when the city was still British colonial rule. 

Among those apprehended and charged under the newly-revived legislation last month was veteran activist Koo Sze-yiu, who was taken into police custody ahead of a planned demonstration outside Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong to protest China’s Winter Olympic Games.

The 75-year-old cancer-sufferer was originally arrested on suspicion of inciting subversion, an offence under the Beijing-imposed national security law. But he was later charged with attempting to commit a seditious act, with the city’s prosecutors alleging that he had brought contempt upon – and incited betrayal against – the Hong Kong and central governments. 

Another activist rounded up under the anti-sedition law last month was singer-activist Tommy Yuen, whose social media posts were said to carry the intention of bringing hatred against the government and the administration of justice. 

The posts in question – including “cursing” of judges and “vilifying” anti-policies – also allegedly aimed to excite Hong Kong residents to act illegally.

Hong Kong singer Tommy Yuen holds a copy of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. Photo: Tommy Yuen, via Instagram.

Two women in their early 20s were also prosecuted after they urged people not to get Covid-19 vaccines and to flout the city’s anti-epidemic rules. The pair were reported to be shopkeepers of a Taiwanese-style takeaway teashop known to be sympathetic to the those arrested over their involvement in the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests.

The arrests were carried out by the national security department of the Police Force, even though sedition charges are not part of the four offences criminalised by the Beijing-imposed national security law. The law criminalises secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism. 

Sedition carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail upon a first conviction, whilst security law offences are punishable with up to life imprisonment. 

The Court of Final Appeal ruled last December that offences under the anti-sedition law would be considered acts endangering national security. The landmark decision has since been used by prosecutors to urge courts to impose a stringent threshold when handling bail applications from sedition suspects. 

Koo, Yuen and the two women all failed to convince the court that they would not continue to engage in acts endangering national security if bail was granted. They were all remanded into custody pending trial.

An HKFP database shows that the last time police pressed charges under the national security law was in September last year, when they indicted four former leaders of the now-disbanded Student Politicism group over an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion. 

As of last Friday, 22 people have been arrested under section 10 of the Crimes Ordinance since the colonial-era legislation was invoked for the first time after the 1997 handover in September 2020. 

It was used to indict activist and former vice-chairperson of People Power Tam Tak-chi over speech and slogans he chanted. He was found guilty on Wednesday of 11 charges – most were related to sedition, whilst others were offences under the Public Order Ordinance and the Prevention and Control of Disease (Prohibition on Gathering) Regulation. 

CityU students’ union faces probe 

The police national security department launched an investigation last month into a “parting ceremony” organised by the City University of Hong Kong students’ union, where participants were said to have written down pro-independence expressions.

City University student union
Representatives of the City University of Hong Kong Students’ Union. Photo: City Broadcasting Channel (CBC).

The probe followed the university’s report to the police that some students congregated at the Kowloon Tong campus on February 14, saying they may have breached the Covid-19 social distancing rules. 

On that day, the student body bid farewell to its office and other premises upon the request of the university, after it failed to submit more than 16 years of audited financial records before a two-week deadline.

Some union representatives painted phrases including “freedom of thought,” “[we will] not yield a single step” and “resist till the end” at an entrance of a shop they operated. Some students also left messages on a “democracy wall” for the union. 

One year since 47 democrats charged

February 28 marked one year since 47 local pro-democracy figures were officially prosecuted under the national security law for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy to commit subversion.

Despite numerous court hearings over the past year, the high-profile case surrounding an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020 has yet to see a trial date. Only 14 defendants are currently on bail pending trial and the remaining 33 are either in custody or serving jail time for other protest-related offences. 

The court is in the process of committing the case to the High Court, where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment. A hearing scheduled for February 28 was delayed after a few defendants were absent owing to the Covid-19 outbreak in prisons. 

The democrats will appear in court again on Friday. 

Apple Daily and Stand News cases adjourned 

A separate national security case involving media mogul Jimmy Lai and six former employees of the now-defunct Apple Daily and its parent company Next Digital was also deferred last month.

The group stand accused of conspiring to collude with foreign forces and requesting sanctions against Hong Kong and China. An additional charge over “seditious publications” – a crime under the colonial law – was slapped on the group last December. 

Owing to the pandemic situation in prisons, all seven defendants failed to show up in-person and instead sent legal representatives to attend a hearing on February 24. They will return to court next Thursday. 

In another case involving acts endangering national security allegedly perpetrated by journalists, two former employees of the now-defunct online media outlet Stand News and its parent company saw their hearing postponed to April.

Former acting chief editor of Stand News Patrick Lam was seen taken away by national security police.
Former acting chief editor of Stand News Patrick Lam was seen taken away by national security police on December 28, 2021. Photo: Supplied.

Ex-editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen, former acting chief editor Patrick Lam and Stand News’ owner Best Pencil (Hong Kong) Limited were charged with conspiracy to publish seditious publications under the Crimes Ordinance – a charge that dates back to the city’s colonial era. 

Similar to other remanded defendants, Chung and Lam were unable to attend the hearing last Friday following a pandemic lockdown in prisons imposed by the Correctional Services Department. 

Chung and Lam’s counsels agreed to the prosecution’s proposal to adjourn the case to April 13. In the meantime, the Department of Justice is set to prepare documents for moving the case to the District Court, where convicts could face up to seven years behind bars. 

New police national security dep’t head

The Hong Kong Police Force revealed in February that assistant commissioner of police Andrew Kan was promoted last December as the Director of National Security. Kan replaced Frederic Choi who was put on leave last March after he was found in an unlicensed massage parlour. Choi was later transferred to lead the Personnel and Training Department.

National security training for civil servants

Newly recruited civil servants in Hong Kong will have to undergo national security training to complete their three-year probation, the Civil Service Bureau announced on February 9.

In a move to “enhance civil servants’ understanding of the nation’s development and the SAR’s constitutional order,” current government employees will also be required to undertake such training as a prerequisite for promotions. 

The national security law will be incorporated into the Basic Law test, which is part of the government recruitment process.

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