Hong Kong activist jailed for 40 months in sedition trial

Activist Tam Tak-chi was a defendant in the city’s first sedition trial since its 1997 handover to China.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and radio DJ Tam Tak-chi has been sentenced to jail for 40 months after being found guilty of seditious speech and other crimes last month.

Tam is the first to be tried for sedition in Hong Kong since its 1997 handover to China, according to local media.

Rights groups say Wednesday’s verdict shows the new limits that have been placed on free speech in the former British colony.

“Tam’s harsh sentence exemplifies the dizzying speed at which Hong Kong’s freedoms are being eroded. Once known as Asia’s protest capital, Hong Kong is now sentencing people to years in prison simply for shouting slogans,” Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.

Tam, 50, was arrested in September 2020 by national security police for “inciting hatred, contempt against the government and causing discontent and dissatisfaction among the Hong Kong people” and “uttering seditious words” at protests two months before.

He reportedly used slogans like “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” at protests between January and July 2020, according to the court judgement.

The slogan has been in use since 2016, but the Hong Kong government recently said it and similar phrases are illegal under new national security legislation as they question China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

Some of Tam’s alleged offences predate the legislation, which was passed by Beijing on June 30, 2020.

Tam was found guilty of 11 out of 14 charges in March including disorderly conduct, uttering seditious words, and convening an unauthorised assembly, according to the court ruling. He has also been in detention since his 2020 arrest as defendants in national security cases are typically denied bail.

Known by his radio DJ nickname, Fast Beat, Tam has also run in several local elections over the years and is vice chairman of the political party People Power.

He is just one of a growing number of Hong Kong people to find themselves charged under the city’s sedition ordinance, which dates back to the 1930s, but had largely fallen out of use by the 70s.

The colonial law has recently been resurrected, alongside the national security legislation, to prosecute activists, journalists, and opposition politicians.

Sedition carries a maximum sentence of 24 months for a first offence and 36 months for subsequent offences, according to Hong Kong’s crime ordinance.

Earlier this month, police arrested veteran journalist Allan Au for “conspiracy to publish seditious material” and, in a separate incident, arrested six people under the legislation for clapping during a court verdict.

The sedition law has also been used recently to close down pro-democracy news outlets like the online news site Stand News and the tabloid Apple Daily, two publications that were known for their criticism of the government and support for democracy.