A pro-democracy radio host from Hong Kong was on trial Thursday for sedition in the first use of the colonial-era law since the city’s handover to China, as authorities broaden their criminalization of dissent.
Tam Tak-chi, 48, is among a growing number of activists accused of sedition, a little-used decades-old law that prosecutors have dusted over the past 12 months.
It is separate from the sweeping national security law imposed on Hong Kong last year, which has also been used to prosecute dissidents.
The host of online talk show Tam, best known by his nickname “Fast Beat”, is facing eight incitement charges for slogans he uttered or wrote between January and July last year.
He also faces other charges, including inciting an illegal assembly and disorderly conduct.
At the opening of his trial on Thursday, prosecutors read out those slogans, as well as some of Tam’s pro-democracy speeches, often littered with colorful Cantonese curse words.
The slogans included “Free Hong Kong, revolution of our time”, “Corrupt cops, your whole family is going to hell”, “Disband the Hong Kong police, don’t delay anymore” and “Down with the Communist Party of China”.
The trial is a legal turning point for Hong Kong as it will set a precedent for what political statements and attitudes are now considered illegal as China seeks to stamp out dissent after massive and often violent democracy protests two years ago.
On Tuesday, a Hong Kong court convicted a former waiter of terrorism and incitement to secession in the first trial conducted under the new national security law.
At that trial, judges ruled that the popular protest slogan “Free Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time” was a separatist movement and therefore a national security crime.
Tam’s trial was adjourned so judges could await Tuesday’s ruling, which was from a higher court.
In Hong Kong, sedition is broadly defined as any words that “incite hatred, contempt or discontent” towards the government or “encourage displeasure” among residents.
It was first written by the colonial ruler Britain in 1938 and has long been criticized as anti-free speech.
By the time Hong Kong was handed over in 1997, it had been disused for decades and was a largely forgotten relic of the law books in a city that had become a regional bastion of free speech.
But China is currently reshaping Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image, and the newly created National Security Police Unit has revived the sedition law.
Last week, five members of a pro-democracy trade union in Hong Kong, which published children’s books about sheep trying to keep wolves out of their village, were arrested for sedition.
Three have since been charged and remanded in custody.
Sedition carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison for a first offense.
In contrast, the national security law is much stricter with up to life in prison for those convicted of serious crimes.