Hong Kong lawmaker guilty of desecrating Chinese flag

A Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker on Friday was found guilty of “desecrating” the Chinese flag by turning them upside down in parliament, but escaped a prison sentence.

Cheng Chung-tai upended small Chinese and Hong Kong flags that some pro-Beijing legislators had displayed on their desks in the legislative assembly last October.

The incident happened during a feisty session in which two pro-independence lawmakers were barred from taking up their seats in a row over an oath-taking ceremony.

Under Hong Kong law, it is an offence to desecrate national and regional flags by “publicly and wilfully burning, mutilating, scrawling on, defiling or trampling on them”.

Cheng was found guilty on one count of desecrating the national flag and one count of desecrating the regional flag by a magistrates’ court Friday.

He was handed a HK$5,000 ($640) fine, though each charge carries a maximum penalty of a HK$50,000 fine and three years in jail. Cheng had previously pleaded not guilty.

Cheng’s lawyer had argued that he did not cause any physical damage to the flags, but magistrate Cheng Lim-chi said it happened in a symbolic place.

The lawmaker said the whole process was “ridiculous”.

“I would say today’s verdict serves to remind Hong Kong residents that our society is not open or has democracy and freedom, we are facing an authoritarian government,” he told reporters after the hearing.

The city was handed back to China by colonial ruler Britain in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula.

But there are concerns China is interfering in the semi-autonomous city, eroding its freedoms and way of life.

The face of Hong KongĀ“s pro-democracy campaign, Joshua Wong, former lawmaker Nathan Law and fellow protest leader Alex Chow were sent to prison in August for their leading role in the initial protest that sparked the months-long Umbrella Movement of 2014 — demonstrations and street blockades calling for democratic reforms.

Their jailing has been slammed by international rights groups and politicians and has prompted accusations that the independence of Hong Kong’s courts has been compromised under pressure from Beijing.