This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Hong Kong’s security secretary warned on Wednesday that the city’s government plans to broaden the scope of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act to encompass broader definitions of espionage.
Chris Tang told the city’s legislature that existing legislation, including the draconian national security law, is currently too limited to cover all of the activities the government wishes to criminalize.
“In the existing Official Secrets Ordinance, the definition of espionage work is rather limited,” Tang said in comments aired by government broadcaster RTHK. “It covers the approach of prohibited places and the making of information useful to the enemy.”
“We feel that these definitions are not enough for us to combat all manners of espionage activities and risks arising from these,” he said.
The amendments will be made at the same time as new legislation is tabled under Article 23 of the city’s Basic Law governing national security laws, likely in the second half of this year, Tang said. Earlier plans to legislate under Article 23 were shelved following mass popular protests in 2003.
Tang’s warning came after the authorities appointed a designated national security judge to preside in the trial of five speech therapists who were charged with “conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display or reproduce seditious publications” under colonial-era sedition laws.
The ruling means there could be no jury at the trial of Sidney Ng, 28, Samuel Chan, 25, Marco Fong, 26, Lai Man-ling, 25, and Melody Yeung, 27, who were arrested in July 2021 after publishing three children’s books that portrayed sheep uniting to defend their village against invading wolves, a plot-line that the authorities said incited hatred of the authorities.
The five defendants appeared in good spirits as they were escorted into the District Court earlier this week, smiling and waving to loved ones in the public gallery.
The prosecution argued that Article 44 of a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020 was applicable in the case, in addition to the sedition charges.
However, they have been denied bail as the charges against them are deemed a matter of “national security.”
Trial fairness questioned
The hearing was led by national security judge Kwok Wai-kin, who was temporarily suspended from duty after expressing sympathy in court for a defendant accused of stabbing protesters during the 2019 protest movement.
Kwok, who is a designated national security judge, appointed himself to hear the trial, despite arguments from the defense that it would prejudice the public’s perception of the fairness of the trial.
“Designated national security law judges are no different from other judges,” Kwok retorted.
Hong Kong’s Chief Justice Andrew Cheung hit back on Monday at concerns over lack of impartiality in trials judged by national security appointees.
“All appointed judges are incumbent judges, and, as such, must first have met Article 92 of the Basic Law, and the strict requirements on judicial and professional abilities in selecting judges,” Cheung said in a speech opening the legal new year in Hong Kong.
“No political or personal factors are allowed to be involved,” he said.
National security judges are chosen by the chief executive, who may consult with the chief justice while making the designation, he said.
Cheung also defended the possibility that national security trials can take place without a jury, in front of three designated judges.
“[The judges’] verdict is given in a fully reasoned judgment which is published online for public scrutiny,” Cheung said.
The “seditious sheep” trial is set to begin on July 5, 2022. All of the defendants have been held on remand for at least five months.
Until the national security law ushered in a city-wide crackdown on peaceful criticism and political opposition to the government, trial by jury had been one of the most important features of Hong Kong’s common-law legal system, as it was designed to offer defendants additional protection against the abuse of official power.