(AP) — A pro-democracy protester was sentenced to nine years in prison
Friday in the territory's first prosecution
under Hong Kong's national security law
, as the ruling Communist Party tightens control.
Tong Ying-kit, 24, was convicted of inciting secession and terrorism after crashing his motorcycle
into a group of police
officers during a July 1, 2020, rally while carrying a flag with the banned slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times."
that erupted in mid-2019, President Xi Jinping
's government imposed the law on the former British
colony last year. Beijing
has rolled back the territory's Western-style civil liberties and attempted to crush a pro-democracy movement by imprisoning activists. The public's role in electing Hong Kong legislators has been reduced.
Critics accuse Beijing of violating the autonomy promised when Hong Kong was returned to China
in 1997 and undermining the city's status as a global financial center, while human rights
activists claim the security law is being used to target legitimate dissent.
Tong's sentence was more than three years longer than the prosecution had requested, and he faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.
According to Amnesty International
's Asia-Pacific regional director, Yamini Mishra, Tong's sentence is a "hammer blow to free speech
" and demonstrates that the law is "a tool to instill terror" in government critics.
Mishra stated that the law “lacks any exemption for legitimate expression or protest,” and that the decision “at no point considered Tong’s rights to freedom of expression and protest.”
In a statement
, the US government criticized the "unjust outcome" of Tong's trial
and said the security law was used "as a political weapon to silence dissenting voices." It also claimed that China is undermining rights guaranteed by Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and the 1984 Chinese-British Joint Declaration on the return of the territory.
It urged Beijing to "stop targeting individuals who are exercising their rights and freedoms."
Chinese officials reject the criticism, claiming that Beijing is restoring order and instituting security safeguards comparable to those in other countries, with over 100 people
arrested under the security law.
Defense attorneys argued that Tong's sentence should be light because the court did not find the attack
to be intentional, no one was injured, and the secession-related offense was minor under the law.
After Judge Esther Toh announced the sentence for a three-judge panel in the Hong Kong High Court, Tong nodded but said nothing. The former restaurant
waiter wore a black shirt
and tie with a blue blazer, as he had done throughout his trial.
“We will wait for you!” spectators yelled as Tong was led out of the courtroom.
Following the court's adjournment, a spectator yelled to lead defense lawyer Clive Grossman, "Mr. Grossman, appeal!" According to another lawyer, Lawrence Lau, Tong expressed gratitude to the Hong Kong public for their support.
On Tuesday, the judges
convicted Tong, ruling that his actions were intended to intimidate the government and the public, and that carrying the flag was an act of incitement to secession, rejecting defense arguments that Tong could not be proven to be inciting secession simply by using the slogan.
According to Toh, the judge, Tong was sentenced to eight years in prison for incitement to secession and six and a half years in prison for terrorism, with some time served concurrently for a total of nine years.
Tong expressed remorse, but it didn't count toward reducing his sentence because he didn't plead guilty, the judges said in a written ruling, adding that he had "good character" and no criminal record
, but those wouldn't mitigate the penalty due to the "serious offenses."
According to the ruling, the sentence reflects "society's abhorrence."
Tong's trial was held without a jury under rules that allow an exception to Hong Kong's British-style common law system when state secrets are at stake or foreign forces are involved; the judges were appointed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Protests began over an extradition
law proposed by Lam's government and grew to include other grievances and demands for greater democracy, with thousands marching and rallying every weekend at their peak.
, Hong Kong's last pro-democracy newspaper, was closed down last month after journalists
and executives were arrested; its owner, Jimmy Lai, is serving a 20-month prison sentence on charges of colluding with foreigners to endanger national security.
Also last year, Hong Kong's Legislative Council was reorganized to give Beijing-allied figures a majority, and rules for elected officials were tightened to require them to be patriotic.
The remaining 15 pro-democracy legislators resigned last November after four were expelled for urging foreign governments to impose sanctions
on China and Hong Kong in response to Beijing's crackdown.
The United States
ceased treating Hong Kong as a separate trade territory, citing its diminished autonomy, and imposed travel
and financial sanctions on leaders of China's ceremonial legislature. Canada
, and other governments suspended extradition treaties with the territory as a result of the security law.
In December, a mainland court in the southern city of Shenzhen sentenced ten pro-democracy activists and protesters to prison terms ranging from seven months to three years for attempting to flee to Taiwan