A pro-government historian is set to appear for the prosecution in the first trial under Hong Kong’s national security law, arguing a popular protest slogan displayed by the defendant incites others to commit separatist acts.
The High Court on Tuesday heard that Lingnan University vice-president Lau Chi-pang would give evidence on what he called the criminal nature of the “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” slogan during the June 23 trial of Tong Ying-kit.
Tong, 24, has been charged with terrorism for allegedly riding a motorcycle into police officers during a July 1 protest last year. He also faces a count of incitement to commit secession for carrying a flag emblazoned with the slogan.
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In his testimony, the history professor is expected to assert that the rallying call of the 2019 anti-government protests should be interpreted as encouraging others to engage in acts towards separating Hong Kong from China, based on how the wording was historically understood.
The prosecution move to draft in the academic was revealed in a pre-trial hearing, which was held in open court under a special arrangement implemented in light of an earlier decision for the defendant not to be given a jury trial.
Judge Esther Toh Lye-ping told the court: “In this case as there is no jury for the trial we decide in the interest of open justice we made this hearing open to the public with the consent of counsels of both parties.”
During the hearing, defence lawyers requested postponing the trial to give them time to find another expert who could give evidence in support of their client.
A delay was also necessary in view of Tong’s pending application for judicial review of prosecutors’ decision to exclude jurors from the proceedings, they said.
But the three presiding judges dismissed the requests, pointing to the need for an expeditious trial under the Beijing-imposed legislation, which bans acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
The next pre-trial hearing is scheduled for April 8.
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah previously invoked a provision in the security law to request holding the trial before a panel of three judges instead of a jury, contrary to the city’s legal tradition.
The other two judges sitting at Tuesday’s hearing were Anthea Pang Po-kam and Wilson Chan Ka-shun – all of whom were hand-picked by city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to oversee security law proceedings.
The no-jury element was among the legislation’s provisions attracting a cascade of criticism from legal experts – most notably from the Bar Association, the city’s barristers’ body – when the law came into force on June 30 last year.
Defence counsel Lawrence Lok Ying-kam SC said on Tuesday that Tong had been granted legal aid and would file the paperwork for the court challenge shortly.
Lok also complained about prosecutors being late in handing over the witness statement of Lau, a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank.
He said that gave Tong’s legal team little time to search for a scholar with similar expertise to defend their case. “It is not easy to find one given the current political climate.”
But judge Toh questioned those concerns given the trial was three months away. She also rejected the idea of postponing the trial until the resolution of the proposed judicial challenge, fearing the process would take too long.
Tong has been in jail since his arrest in July last year, with the security legislation imposing a higher threshold for defendants seeking bail.