Charged with sedition, Law Oi-wah, a single mother, pleaded guilty in a nearly inaudible voice before a Hong Kong court in the presence of her 12-year-old son.
Arrested in March, this 48-year-old woman was charged under a colonial-era law for spreading dozens of pro-democracy messages posted and written by others on social media.
He asked to be released on bail, but was refused even though his messages barely received an audience.
“My mother has not come back for a month (…) Please let my mother come home,” her son wrote to the court that sentenced her to four months in prison in April.
Law’s case adds to a string of sedition convictions in Hong Kong where critics say Beijing is tightening its authoritarian grip.
After massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019 and the introduction of a national security law imposed from Beijing, Hong Kong used the sedition charge introduced in British colonial times for the first time in more than 50 years.
NEITHER MILITANTS, NOR POLITICAL
Among the more than 30 people accused of sedition, at least twenty were not militants or politicians, but simple delivery men or workers in the service sector.
Their cases garner little attention because they are quickly judged by lower courts as threats to national security.
Their acts of “sedition” consist mainly of criticizing the authorities (the government, the police or the courts) through posters, stickers or messages on social networks.
The trials are handled by judges chosen by the government for security matters in which provisional release on bail has become an exception.
Once bail is denied, most of these ordinary citizens give up fighting given the few chances of success, defendants and lawyers tell AFP.
Kenji, who speaks under a pseudonym for security reasons, says he was left without the will to defend himself after spending five months in provisional detention.
“When you’re inside (…), you spend days wondering if the prosecution is going to add a national security charge against you,” he told AFP.
“Although we find this very unfair, we plead guilty for a faster exit,” adds Kenji, accused of publicly criticizing the authorities.
Penalties for sedition can go up to two years in prison. By acknowledging guilt, it can be reduced by a third.
According to the city’s security minister, Chris Tang, the sedition law is a necessary instrument.
It covers acts, speech or publications with “seditious intent” such as stimulating “discontent or disaffection”, promoting “evil feelings” or inciting violence.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has criticized “the overly broad interpretation and arbitrary application” of sedition crimes and the national security law in Hong Kong, whose authorities say the laws are clear.
For Kim Hau, manager of a teahouse where police raided to arrest him in February, the crime remains “broad and mysterious.”
The woman had published brochures questioning the covid vaccination program in the city and inviting the population to boycott a government geolocation application to combat the pandemic. The police confiscated her phone and Hau was sentenced to seven months in prison.
“ENOUGH TO SCARE”
“They classify anything as seditious because they believe that it incites people to act directly or indirectly against the government,” he says.
A lawyer specializing in these cases acknowledged that this crime presents “a lack of legal certainty.”
“They want this ambiguity,” this lawyer told AFP, requesting anonymity. “This is enough to scare ordinary people.”
Chiu Mei-ying, a 68-year-old housewife, found herself in the crosshairs of authorities in April accused of having uttered “seditious words”.
Three months earlier, he had attended, along with the preacher Garry Pang, a trial of a militant in which he criticized the judge. “I barely uttered a sentence,” he says.
His process cost him more than HK$300,000 (US$38,300). Chiu finally gave up appealing and served a three-month sentence.
“I still don’t understand what sedition is,” he says. “I’ve just learned that the red line can be very wide.”