Hong Kong leader says early prison release unlikely for national security offenders

By Thomson Reuters Mar 26, 2024 | 12:50 AM

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader John Lee said on Tuesday it would become “common practice” not to grant people convicted of national security offences early release from prison under the city’s new national security law.

Lee’s remarks at a weekly press conference came amid local media reports that activist Ma Chun-man was the first prisoner blocked from early release for good behaviour after the new law took force at the weekend.

The law, known as Article 23, covers new or updated offences including sedition, espionage and interference by external forces, sparking international criticism that some definitions are too vague and it could damage the Chinese-ruled city’s international financial hub credentials.

Hong Kong officials have said Article 23 was vital to plugging loopholes and bring long-term stability after the former British colony was rocked by months of protests in 2019.

Ma, dubbed “Captain America 2.0” for wielding the comic book hero’s shield during the 2019 pro-democracy protests, was convicted in 2021 of inciting secession through his slogans, statements and placards under an earlier Beijing-imposed security law. He was sentenced to five years and nine months.

Ma later won an appeal and his sentence was reduced to five years. If granted the usual one-third reduction for good behaviour, he would have been released on Monday.

Lee said endangering national security was a serious crime and it needed to be made clear to everyone that perpetrators of such crimes would not normally be granted an early release from prison.

“It is common practice not to obtain a reduced sentence,” Lee said. “This tells everyone that do not try to do any acts or activities that endanger national security.”

A reduction would be made only the city’s prisons chief was satisfied that a prisoner’s reduced sentence would not put national security at risk, Lee said.

He was asked about Ma but did not comment specifically on his case.

The Correctional Services Department (CSD) said it would not comment on individual cases and cited amendments to the prison rules under the new law.

“There is no appeal mechanism in relation to the decision of the Commissioner of Correctional Services. The Commissioner will manage all persons in custody in a professional manner in strict accordance with all relevant laws,” the CSD said in a statement.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang; Editing by Greg Torode and Jamie Freed)