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First trial under national security law starts without jury

Hong Kong’s first trial under its harsh national security law began on Wednesday in a trial without a jury.

Tong Ying-kit faces life in jail but has pleaded not guilty to inciting secession and terrorism, as well as a charge of dangerous driving.

He is accused of riding a motorbike into several police, flying a flag about the “liberation” of Hong Kong.

Beijing says the national security law criminalises “subversive” acts but critics say it silences dissent.

The law came into force after a series of mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, some of which turned violent.

Beijing and Hong Kong authorities say the law – widely criticised internationally – was needed to bring stability.

Mr Tong was arrested on 1 July 2020, accused of riding his motorbike into a group of police and injuring some of them.

The 24-year old is also alleged to have been carrying a flag that read “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.

A popular slogan among the protesters at the time, it became illegal under the national security law which criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

Violations of the law carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Mr Tong also faces separate charges of dangerous driving.

Why is there no jury?

The trial without jury is seen as a landmark moment for Hong Kong’s fast-changing legal traditions.

The defendant’s legal team has been pushing for the case to be heard by a jury, arguing it was Mr Tong’s right given that he potentially faces a life sentence if found guilty.

But Hong Kong’s justice secretary argued that a jury trial in this case would put jurors’ safety at risk given the city’s tense political situation.

It is expected to last 15 working days, say local media reports.

What is the controversy over the law?

A former British colony, the city was handed back to China in 1997 but under the “one country, two systems” principle.

This was supposed to guarantee certain freedoms for the territory – including freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights – which mainland China does not have.

These freedoms are enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which was meant to last until 2047.

But in June last year, Beijing passed the national security law – which lawyers and legal experts said would fundamentally change the territory’s legal system.

Under the law for example, trials can be held in secret (Article 41) and without a jury (Article 46). Judges can be handpicked (Article 44) by Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is answerable directly to Beijing.

Since the law was enacted in June, more than 100 people have been arrested under its provisions.

bbc

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