Sedition is a “very serious offence” that is “like treason,” a Hong Kong prosecutor has told a local court in her closing arguments at a trial against five speech therapists who allegedly spread separatism by publishing storybooks about sheep and wolves.
Speech therapists Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho returned to the District Court on Monday, almost two weeks after they pleaded not guilty to conspiring to print, publish, distribute and display three books between June 2020 and July 2021 with seditious intention.
The children’s publications allegedly alluded to the 2019 anti-extradition bill unrest, the detention of 12 Hong Kong fugitives by the Chinese authorities, and a strike staged by Hong Kong medics at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. The defendants, who were executive committee members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, were said to have “indoctrinated” readers with separatism, incited “anti-Chinese sentiment,” “degraded” lawful arrests and prosecution and “intensified” Hong Kong-China conflicts.
On Monday, the court spent more than four hours hearing the closing arguments from lead prosecutor Laura Ng, who cited numerous overseas cases in defining the nature and purpose of the sedition offence, which is covered in the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance.
Referencing a case from the UK, that dated back more than a century, the prosecutor said that sedition was “a crime against society,” with an aim to “disturb the tranquillity of the state.” It would lead people to subvert the government, she said, as well as incite people to an insurrection, a rebellion or even a civil war.
“Sedition is a very serious offence… like treason,” Ng told District Judge Kwok Wai-kin. “The government have to extinguish it at the earliest moment.”
The prosecution also laid out a detailed timeline showing how Hong Kong’s sedition law took shape and evolved over the years. She made reference to a decision handed down by China’s top legislature on May 28, 2020, around a month before the national security law came into force, which confirmed that Beijing would “improve” Hong Kong’s legal system and enforcement mechanisms to safeguard national security.
The National People’s Congress (NPC) described Hong Kong as facing “increasing notable national security risks,” with “anti-China forces” seeking to disrupt the city since the onset of the 2019 protests. The NPC mentioned Article 23 of the Basic Law, Ng said, which showed Beijing saw the need to apply the sedition law that was latent for years.
“It is obvious that the [National People’s Congress] had the sedition offence in mind. It could safeguard national security but it long laid dormant,” Ng said.
Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that the Hong Kong government shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central government. Its legislation failed in 2003 following mass protests. The government has always had enough votes to pass the law, but it has never been raised since the 2003 debacle. Pro-democracy advocates fear it could have a negative effect on civil liberties.
While Ng submitted several authoritative cases from other jurisdictions, the prosecutor told Judge Kwok that he should not accept overseas material presented by the defence “too readily.” She said the court should take into account the legislative history behind foreign laws criminalising sedition, the wording used in such legislation and whether those countries and regions saw any “imminent risk of society being ripped [apart] and the country being split.”
The prosecution also argued that restrictions on the right to freedom of expression – through the outlawing of sedition – were supported by a “legitimate aim” of protecting national security and public order, which encompassed the city’s constitutional order, the rule of law and the judiciary.
She said the restrictions were connected to the legitimate aim, while the legislation already excluded political criticism and thus should be considered as reasonably balanced.
“We have to stress that the [sedition law] is not just to protect the Central Authority, but to protect constitutional order and Hong Kong’s prosperity,” Ng said. “It is entirely proportionate.”
Ng added that sedition cases in Hong Kong were “likely to be sensitive” and would attract media interest. The public’s “watchful eye” would serve as “scrutiny” to ensure the court was “prudent and cautious” in their handling of sedition cases.
Sedition is not covered by the Beijing-imposed national security law, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts and mandates up to life imprisonment. Those convicted under the sedition law, which was last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still a British colony, face a less serious maximum penalty of two years in prison.
The defence will make their closing statement on Wednesday.