Hong Kong Court Denies Jury Trial to First Person Charged Under National Security Law

May 20, 2021 Updated: June 3, 2021

HONG KONG—The first person charged under the national security law in Hong Kong will face a trial without jury, the city’s High Court ruled on Thursday, in a landmark decision that marks a departure from the global financial hub’s common law traditions.

Police say Tong Ying-kit, carried a sign reading “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” and drove his motorbike into officers during a protest on July 1, knocking several down on the narrow street before falling over and getting arrested.

It was the first day on which the national security law was in force. The law punishes anything authorities deem as secession, separatism, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

Tong, 24, was among more than 300 demonstrators against the new law who were arrested that day, and was charged with inciting separatism and terrorism.

In February,Teresa Cheng, Secretary for Justice,  informed the defendant’s legal team his trial will be heard by three judges appointed for national security cases, instead of a jury, citing “the personal safety of jurors and their family members.”

Supporters bid farewell to a prison van
Supporters bid farewell to a prison van transporting Tong Ying-kit, a Hong Kong resident charged under the city’s new national security law, who has been denied bail again in Hong Kong, China, on Aug. 25, 2020. (Lam Yik via Reuters)
A woman holds up a paper pad that reads "support sibling" while waiting outside the court
A woman holds up a paper pad that reads “support sibling” while waiting outside the court to bid farewell to a prison van transporting Tong Ying-kit, a Hong Kong resident charged under the city’s new national security law, on Aug. 25, 2020. (Lam Yik via Reuters)

Tong then filed for a judicial review of the decision.

Judge Alex Lee at the High Court rejected the application, saying in a written judgement on Thursday “There is nothing inherently unreasonable in directing a trial by a panel of three judges sitting without a jury, when there is a perceived risk of the personal safety of jurors and their family members or that due administration of justice might be impaired.”

Hong Kong’s Judiciary describes trial by jury as one of the most important features of the city’s legal system, a common law tradition designed to offer defendants additional protection against the possibility of authorities overreaching their power.

Article 46 of the new law—drafted by Beijing, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party and conviction rates are close to 100 percent—states three instances where juries can be scrapped: protecting state secrets, cases involving foreign forces, and protecting the personal safety of jurors.

Tong has also been repeatedly denied bail. Hong Kong’s common law has traditionally allowed defendants to seek release unless prosecutors can show lawful grounds for their detention.

In another departure from common law practices, the burden is now placed on the defendant to prove they will not break the law if released on bail.

The trial is due to start on June 23.

By Jessie Pang