Tong Ying-kit is found guilty of terrorism for driving a motorbike into three police officers and secession for flying a protest flag during a rally on July 1 last year.

Tong Ying-kit arrives at a court in a police van in Hong Kong, July 6, 2020.
Tong Ying-kit arrives at a court in a police van in Hong Kong, July 6, 2020. (AP)

A Hong Kong court has convicted a former waiter of terrorism and inciting secession in the first trial conducted under a national security law that was imposed by China to stamp out dissent.

The watershed ruling on Tuesday lays down a new marker in the city's changing legal landscape and confirms certain slogans are now outlawed in the international finance hub.

Tong Ying-kit, 24, was charged with terrorism for driving a motorbike into three police officers and secession for flying a protest flag during a rally on July 1 last year, the day after the national security law was enacted.

The flag read "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times", a ubiquitous slogan during the huge and often violent anti-Beijing protests that convulsed the city two years ago.

The 15-day trial was heard without a jury – a significant departure from Hong Kong's common law tradition – and was decided by judges Esther Toh, Anthea Pang and Wilson Chan, picked by city leader Carrie Lam to hear national security cases.

Slogan incites 'secession'

In a written ruling, the judges said the flag's slogan was "capable of inciting others to commit secession".

Toh read out a summary of the ruling in court, saying "such display of the words was capable of inciting others to commit secession."

She added that Tong was aware of the slogan's secessionist meaning, and that he intended to communicate this meaning to others. He also had a "political agenda" and his actions caused "grave harm to society".

The charge of terrorism was met because crashing his motorbike into police officers "seriously jeopardised public safety or security".

Tong will be sentenced at a later date, and faces up to life in prison.

The ruling has profound implications for future national security cases.

More than 60 people have been charged under the law, including some of the city's best-known activists such as Jimmy Lai, owner of the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper.

Most are now in jail awaiting trial.

READ MORE: Hong Kong police arrest former Apple Daily editor under security law

READ MORE: In Hong Kong, children's tales of sheep and wolves seen as seditious

Legal analysts said Tuesday's ruling showed Hong Kong's judiciary is adopting a broad interpretation of the security law and that the courts would become more like those in authoritarian mainland China, especially for political cases.

"The whole system, from the administration to the law enforcement to the judiciary, has reached an alignment," Eric Lai, an expert on Hong Kong's legal system at Georgetown Law School, told AFP.

Surya Deva, an expert at City University of Hong Kong's law school, told AFP that "all institutions and legal processes will be geared to achieve certain pre-defined outcomes" in national security-related cases.

In mainland China, opaque courts answer to the Communist Party and conviction is all but guaranteed, especially in political or national security cases.

Hong Kong maintains an internationally respected common law system that is the bedrock of its business-hub status.

Days of Tong's trial were spent on the flag, with university professors called by both sides to explain the slogan's meaning.

Defence experts argued the slogan meant many things to different people in what was a leaderless protest movement that included a broad spectrum of views, from people advocating genuine independence to those wanting greater freedoms and police accountability.

The prosecution argued that the slogan had clear separatist connotations and that Tong's decision to drive his bike into the police met the security law's definition of terrorism.

READ MORE: Hong Kong police arrest nine people suspected of terrorist activity

Reshaping Hong Kong

Tong's case was unusual in that he was one of the only people arrested under the security law who was accused of an explicitly violent act.

The vast majority of those awaiting prosecution were arrested for expressing political views that authorities say are now illegal.

Activists and many Western nations say the security law is reshaping Hong Kong in China's image.

China says it was needed to restore stability after 2019's protests.

The security law has since radically transformed the political and legal landscape of the city, which China promised could keep key liberties and autonomy after its 1997 return from British colonial rule.

China has jurisdiction over some cases, toppling Hong Kong's legal firewall, and has allowed its security agents to operate openly in the city for the first time.

It also allows for cases to be tried by judges instead of juries and bail is largely denied for those arrested.

Tong pleaded not guilty to all charges and did not take the stand during the trial.

READ MORE: Hong Kong arrests 117 people in first year of national security law

Source: TRTWorld and agencies