A national security law, which was penned in Beijing and imposed on Hong Kong last year after huge protests, allows for cases to be tried by three specially selected judges instead of a jury.

Tong Ying-kit arrives at the West Kowloon Court in Hong Kong on July 6, 2020
Tong Ying-kit arrives at the West Kowloon Court in Hong Kong on July 6, 2020 (AFP)

The first trial under Hong Kong's new national security law has begun without a jury, a watershed moment for the financial hub's fast-changing legal landscape.

Tong Ying-kit pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges of inciting secession and terrorism, as well as a charge of dangerous driving.

The 24-year-old was arrested the day after the sweeping new law came into effect when he allegedly drove his motorcycle into a group of police officers during protests on July 1 last year.

Footage showed his motorcycle was flying a flag that read "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times", a popular anti-Beijing protest slogan that is now deemed illegal under the security law.

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No jury

Two courts had earlier rejected Tong's plea to have his case heard by a jury, which his legal team had argued was a constitutional right given that he faces a life sentence if convicted.

Trial by jury has been a cornerstone of Hong Kong's 176-year-old common law system and is described by the city's judiciary on its website as one of the legal system's "most important features".

But the national security law, which was penned in Beijing and imposed on Hong Kong last year after huge and often violent protests, allows for cases to be tried by three specially selected judges.

The city's justice secretary invoked the no jury clause for Tong's trial arguing that juror safety could be compromised in Hong Kong's febrile political landscape, a decision first revealed by AFP.

Tong's legal team has yet to decide whether to bring their case to Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal.

However, the wording of Beijing's security law makes clear that it trumps any local regulations in the event of a dispute, something successive court rulings have already upheld.

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Scope of national security law

Tong's case is unusual because he is the only Hong Konger so far charged under the security law with an explicitly violent act.

More than 60 people have now been charged under the legislation, including some of the city's best-known activists, but their offences are related to political views or speech that authorities have declared illegal.

Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have hailed the security law for successfully restoring stability after the demonstrations that convulsed the finance hub in 2019.

But it has also transformed the city's political and legal landscape – which was historically firewalled from the authoritarian mainland.

The law furthermore grants China jurisdiction over some cases and empowers mainland security agents to operate openly in the semi-autonomous city for the first time.

It has removed the presumption of bail for non-violent crimes. Those charged have to instead prove to judges they will no longer pose any sort of national security threat.

The vast majority of those charged have been remanded into custody.

Those released have faced a host of restrictions including house arrest, no contact with foreign officials and no media interviews or social media.

Critics, including many Western nations, say China has broken its "One country, two systems" promise that Hong Kong could maintain key freedoms after its handover from Britain in 1997.

Apple Daily says Thursday's paper will be its last

The law has also caused jitters within Hong Kong's business community. Last week it was invoked to freeze the assets of Apple Daily, a popular anti-Beijing newspaper.

Under the security law, no court order or conviction is required for the government to freeze a company's assets and Apple Daily has since said on Wednesday that the following day's newspaper will be its final edition.

"Apple Daily decided that the paper will cease operations from midnight and tomorrow (24th) will be the last publication day," the paper wrote on its website. "Apple Daily's website will stop updates from midnight."

That announcement came minutes after the paper's board said it would cease operations "no later than Saturday".

Meanwhile, Hong Kong police arrested a columnist of Apple Daily on suspicion of conspiring to collude with a foreign country or foreign forces, local media TVB said on Wednesday.

Police, which typically do not disclose the names of those arrested, said they arrested a 55-year-old man on those charges.

TVB identified the man as an Apple Daily columnist who publishes under the pen name of Li Ping.

READ MORE: Hong Kong's Apple Daily to 'shut down' after asset freeze

Source: TRTWorld and agencies