HONG KONG, (AFP):- A teenage Hong Kong democracy activist was charged on Thursday with secession, the first public political figure to be prosecuted under a sweeping new national security law Beijing imposed on the city.
Tony Chung, 19, appeared in court charged with secession, money laundering and conspiring to publish seditious content, two days after he was arrested by plainclothes police in a Hong Kong coffee shop opposite the US consulate.
He was remanded into custody until his next court hearing on 7 January and faces between 10 years to life in prison if convicted under the new law.
Chung is a former member of Student Localism, a small group that advocates Hong Kong’s independence from China.
The group said it disbanded its Hong Kong network shortly before Beijing blanketed the city in its new security law in late June but kept its international chapters going.
The legislation — a response to huge and often violent pro-democracy protests that swept the city last year — outlawed a host of new crimes, including expressing certain political views such as advocating independence or greater autonomy for Hong Kong.
Chung and three other members of Student Localism were first arrested by a newly created national security police unit in July on suspicion of inciting secession via social media posts.
A little-known group calling itself Friends of Hong Kong put out a statement shortly afterwards Chung’s arrest on Tuesday saying it had been trying to arrange for Chung to enter the US consulate that day and apply for asylum.
AFP was not able to independently verify the group’s claim.
– Sweeping new law –
Chung was held by police until his appearance in court on Thursday morning and has therefore been unable to comment on whether he was planning to seek sanctuary.
His bail conditions from his first arrest prevented him from leaving Hong Kong.
Asylum claims to the US usually have to be made on arrival in the country or via a United Nations refugee referral programme.
With some very rare exceptions, consulates do not tend to grant asylum.
A small but growing number of Hong Kongers have fled the city since Beijing’s crackdown on democracy protesters and recent asylum cases are known to have been successful in both Germany and Canada.
China bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature to impose the new security law, keeping its contents secret until it was introduced.
It targets secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces.
Along with mass arrests and an anti-coronavirus ban on public gatherings it has largely succeeded in stamping out mass protests and dissent.
But the root causes of last year’s huge rallies remain unaddressed and the city is still deeply polarised.
Critics say the law’s broad wording criminalises certain peaceful political views and delivers a hammer blow to the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms.
The legislation ended the legal firewall between Hong Kong and the authoritarian mainland, empowering China’s security agents to operate openly in the city for the first time.
Beijing has also said it will have jurisdiction over the most serious national security offences.
Those convicted with national security crimes face between 10 years and life in prison.
Around two dozen people have been arrested under the new law came in, including newspaper tycoon Jimmy Lai, a staunch Beijing critics.
Only two have so far been charged — Chung and a man who allegedly rode his motorbike into a group of police during a protest.
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