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Pro-democracy activist Tam Tak-chi walks to a prison van to head to court in Hong Kong, March 2, 2021.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and radio host Tam Tak-chi has been jailed for 40 months under a colonial-era sedition law that has increasingly been used to target opposition figures in the Chinese territory.

Mr. Tam, vice-chair of the People Power party, was arrested in September, 2020, just months after Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, giving police sweeping new powers. Popularly known as “Fast Beat” from his long career as a radio DJ and presenter, Mr. Tam had frequently criticized the law, which criminalizes secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.

But despite the new legislation’s broad scope, police said Mr. Tam was instead being charged under a law dating from Britain’s control of Hong Kong. He was the first person charged under the legislation – which refers to sedition against “Her Majesty, or Her Heirs or Successors,” as well as acts against the local government – since the city’s 1997 handover to China.

After frequent delays due to the pandemic, Mr. Tam finally appeared in court last month to face 14 counts, including “uttering seditious words,” disorderly conduct in a public place and holding or convening an unauthorized assembly.

His defence argued that criticism of the national security law and China’s ruling Communist Party was a legitimate exercise of Mr. Tam’s free speech, not sedition as defined by the colonial-era law, which was last updated in 1971. Judge Stanley Chan rejected that argument, however, ruling there was no difference in the eyes of the law between the Communist Party and the Hong Kong or Chinese governments.

Justice Chan is one of a number of judges handpicked by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to oversee national security cases. In his verdict, he pointed to the Chinese constitution, which refers to the “leadership of the Communist Party of China,” adding that since the Hong Kong government “is authorized by the central government,” criticism of local officials is “also a blow to the central government” and can therefore be considered seditious.

Finding Mr. Tam guilty on 11 counts, Justice Chan said the defendant’s remarks went beyond “criticism or discussion” and incited others to ignore the national security law, defy the police and even attack Hong Kong officials and lawmakers.

At his sentencing Wednesday, Mr. Tam was given 40 months in prison and fined 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($797). He has already spent roughly 19 months in jail.

While he was the first person to be charged under the anti-sedition law in almost a quarter-century, Mr. Tam is by no means alone. Four others prosecuted under the legislation pleaded guilty without going to trial, while several other cases remain outstanding.

Earlier this month, veteran Hong Kong journalist Allan Au was arrested for “conspiracy to publish a seditious publication.” Mr. Au had been a writer for Stand News, a pro-democracy publication forced to close in December after multiple executives and board members were charged under the national security law.

After his arrest, the Hong Kong Journalists Association – a media union that has come under intense pressure from authorities – expressed “deep concern,” warning that his prosecution could “further damage the freedom of the press in Hong Kong.”

Use of the colonial-era legislation has increased in part owing to a ruling by Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal (CFA) in late 2021 that expanded the broad powers granted by the national security law to cases involving sedition and other related acts not covered by the 2020 legislation. The CFA decision was particularly controversial because the court – on which several foreign judges sit, including Canada’s Beverley McLachlin – is seen as a bulwark against the further diminution of Hong Kong’s civil and political freedoms.

Last month, Ms. McLachlin said she would remain on the court, even after two British judges – Robert Reed and Patrick Hodge – resigned out of concern they were increasingly lending legitimacy to a Hong Kong government that has “departed from values of political freedom and freedom of expression.”

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