A Hong Kong pro-democracy activist has been convicted under the colonial-era anti-sedition law by one of the city’s handpicked national security judges.

Tam Tak-chi, activist and former vice-chairperson of People Power, was found guilty of 11 charges by Judge Stanley Chan at the District Court on Wednesday. Tam was acquitted of two charges of “disorderly conduct in a public place,” and one count of “conspiracy to utter seditious words.”

Tam Tak-chi. File photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

The case has been adjourned to March 31 for the judge to hand down a sentence.

During Tam’s trial, both the prosecution and defence summoned experts to debate the meaning of the slogan “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” which was coined by activist Edward Leung in 2016 and commonly used during the anti-extradition bill protests and unrest of 2019.

In the city’s first national security trial, the slogan was ruled as capable of inciting others to commit secession.

The prosecution’s expert witness, historian and now lawmaker Lau Chi-pang, who also testified in the first national security trial, said during Tam’s trial that the words “liberate” and “revolution” have had the same meanings in ancient China and in the modern day.

The defence’s expert witness, a University of Hong Kong’s linguistics professor Janny Leung, argued that the slogan could have very broad meanings and that the word “revolution” did not necessarily mean “to overturn a ruling regime.”

Stanley Chan. Photo: Judiciary.

Chan said on Wednesday that he agreed with Lau’s interpretation of the slogan that it carried pro-independence connotations.

In his judgement, Chan also said that by intentionally using anonymous opinion and interviews with no verifiable sources to support some of her arguments, Leung “violated the professional duty an expert witness has to the court.”

The judge ruled that Leung’s methodology, including the use of Google Ngram and analysis of the search frequency of key terms on Google was “astonishing.”

“Expert witnesses cannot only adopt arguments that only benefit their clients, and lose the stance of being impartial, fair, and professional.”

Wan Chai Law Courts Building. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The defence also raised another legal argument saying that attacks aimed at the Communist Party were not equal to attacking the Central government, and any words targeting the party should not be seen as seditious.

The judge ruled that the defence was attempting to “cause confusion and blur the focus” by raising that argument, and that Tam’s attacks on the Communist Party were only part of his seditious words.

“We all know the constitutional status of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese constitution. Even after deleting the words concerning the Communist Party, I think that the defendant still has seditious intentions aiming to undermine the SAR government,” Chan said.

“Because the SAR government is authorised by the Central government, this also undermines the Central government.”

‘Dignity of the judiciary’

Before the court session began, an audio recording was played in the courtroom warning people to remain quiet and not to shout or clap.

As Tam stepped into the dock, people waved to him and the activist waved back. Chan then proceeded to ask whether “people had finished waving.”

Tam Tak-chi. Photo: Facebook.

A woman stood up in the public gallery and said that she was brushing her hair. The judge said that she had no right to speak in a criminal court, told police officers to note down her identity card number, and banned her from the courtroom.

Chan also told the prosecution to record the public gallery, saying that it was an issue concerning “the dignity of the judiciary.” The judge also said that people’s right to expression does not override the judiciary.

First sedition charge since handover

The activist, who has been in remand since he was arrested in September 2020, faced 14 charges including “uttering seditious words,” disorderly conduct in a public place, conspiracy to utter seditious words, holding or convening an unauthorised assembly, incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorised assembly, and refusing to obey an order given by an authorised officer.

The 49-year-old became the first person to stand trial on sedition charges since the city’s handover from Britain to China in 1997.

The sedition law, last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule, falls under the city’s Crimes Ordinance. It is separate from the Beijing-imposed national security law, and outlaws incitement to violence, disaffection and other offences against the British Crown.

Correction 16:57: Owing to an error introduced in the editing process, an earlier version incorrectly stated that Tam Tak-chi was acquitted of three charges of “disorderly conduct in a public place.” He was acquitted of two charges of “disorderly conduct in a public place.” We regret this error.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.