Hong Kong: Harsh Sentence for Shouting Slogans

(New York) – The trial and harsh sentence imposed on a peaceful protester in Hong Kong shows that the authorities are using the National Security Law to curtail free expression, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 11, 2021, a Hong Kong court sentenced Ma Chun-man to five years and nine months in prison for “incitement to secession” for shouting slogans that advocate Hong Kong independence.

The Hong Kong authorities should quash Ma Chun-man’s conviction and release him.
“Shouting slogans that the authorities dislike is not a crime,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Once again the draconian National Security Law is being used to nullify Hong Kong people’s basic rights.”

Ma, 31, began his activism in 2020, inspired by the Hong Kong political thinker and activist, Edward Leung. Ma’s conviction rests on his having shouted and displayed slogans between August and November 2020, including “Hong Kong Independence, the Only Way Out” and “Hong Kong People, Resist!”

Ma also used the 2019 protest slogan, “Reclaim Hong Kong, the Revolution of Our Times,” which authorities banned in July 2020 because it “connotates Hong Kong independence” and thus “subverts state power.” Other evidence against him includes setting up a Telegram channel and Facebook page in which he encouraged people to attend public events to promote independence views.

Judge Stanley Chan ruled that Ma’s right to freedom of expression needed to be considered in light of the “overarching” principle that Hong Kong is an inseparable part of China. Judge Chan said that he opted to hand down a harsher sentence due to the “serious nature” of the case, and cited Ma’s lack of remorse.

Since the Beijing government imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong on June 30, 2020, 154 people have been arrested. Ma’s sentencing – the second under the law – demonstrates the grave legal peril facing the rest of the defendants, most of whom are awaiting trial for peaceful speech and activism. Many of the defendants are prominent figures in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement for whom no evidence has been put forward beyond peaceful speech critical of the government and for exercising their freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

“Hong Kong authorities could be setting the stage for similarly harsh sentences for leading pro-democracy figures to strike a knockout blow to the movement,” Wang said. “Governments around the world should call on Hong Kong authorities to release Ma immediately, and to speak out against this heightened threat to free speech.”