A Hong Kong court has passed sentence for a breach of the city’s colonial-era sedition law for the first time in more than two decades, jailing a 26-year-old waitress for three years over a doxxing campaign against police and officials during the 2019 protests.
Hui Pui Yee’s last-minute bid to be given a hospital order rather than jail time was rejected in the District Court on Tuesday (April 20), with the judge saying the gravity of offences warranted immediate imprisonment despite evidence she had been suffering from depression.
Hui earlier admitted liability for some 9,400 offensive messages posted from a Telegram account she managed during the anti-government unrest.
She pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to commit a seditious act, whereby she admitted spreading hate speech and encouraging doxxing and assault against people supporting the government and police on Telegram, a messaging app popular with protesters.
She also confessed to conspiracy to incite others to commit arson by disseminating information about the making of petrol bombs and other weapons on the networking platform in a bid to provoke other users to damage properties by fire.
The offences were said to have taken place between August 12 and Nov 28 in 2019, when Hui and two other unknown Telegram users co-managed a channel called “Boy finds dad and mum”.
The court heard the channel, which had 60,068 subscribers and at least 9,407 posts on Nov 28 that year, had published the personal information of 1,574 people, including mainland Chinese and local government officials, lawmakers and police officers.
The group continued the illegal activity despite two injunction orders imposed by the High Court outlawing the doxxing of police officers and incitement of violence on the internet.
After her arrest, Hui admitted posting the personal information about government supporters on the platform, as well as calling for people to harass the victims.
Further investigation revealed the defendant had discussed spreading information concerning the methods of producing firebombs with the other two administrators.
In Tuesday’s mitigation hearing, defence counsel Anthony Lai Ka Kit said his client came from a broken family and, similar to her mother who had left her, had suffered from recurring mental episodes over her adolescence.
She was diagnosed with severe depression and mood disorder after her arrest.
Lai said Hui’s mental issues had contributed to her poor decision-making and a desire for peers recognition, which she had sought through co-administering the Telegram channel.
He asked Judge Frankie Yiu Fun Che to consider a lesser sentence – such as a hospital order, under which an offender would be locked up in a psychiatric facility for an indefinite period – saying Hui’s involvement was minor compared to the other two unknown administrators.
“The defendant’s role was relatively passive. It can be said she was somewhat an ‘extra’ in the group,” Lai said.
But Yiu said the defendant’s acts could have resulted in dire consequences had any attacks materialised as a result of the incitement.
“The seriousness of the present offence lies in the fact the defendant made use of open messages on the internet which enabled her to incite more people in a shorter period of time,” the judge noted.
He set a sentence starting point of four years’ imprisonment for the arson charge and 20 months for the sedition offence, before reducing each by one-fourth to reflect the defendant’s guilty plea. He ordered the sentences to be served concurrently, making a total jail term of three years.
The maximum sentence for sedition is two years’ jail and a HK$5,000 (S$856) fine, while arson draws a prison term of up to seven years when the case is heard at the District Court.
Hui is the first person to be found guilty of violating the colonial-era sedition law since Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997.
Prosecutors have also invoked the law to prosecute an opposition activist and another for openly calling for the city’s liberation before the commencement of the national security law.
Chief Inspector Tai Tze Bun, of the cyber security and technology crime bureau, said the force respected free speech but would not tolerate acts of spreading hatred on the internet.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.