Executive councillor and barrister Ronny Tong said on Friday that safeguards are built into Hong Kong's sedition laws, and prosecutors using the legislation would have to prove that a section of society had been harmed by an seditious act and not just an individual.
Tong's comments follow the arrest of Central and Western District Council chairwoman Cheng Lai-king on Wednesday night for the suspected offence of "seditious intention". The arrest was related to a Facebook post regarding the alleged identity of a police officer who shot a journalist in the eye at a protest last year.
Tong rejected criticism that the offence, under the Crimes Ordinance, is archaic, saying offences like robbery have also been on the books for a long time.
He said freedom of speech is not "untouchable" and some kind of restrictions should be put in place when the security of the community is concerned.
The barrister said sedition laws only outlaw acts that harm groups of people or the government, such as the promotion of hatred or violence, and simply criticising the authorities would not amount to an offence.
He added that safeguards are in place when it comes to the use of the legislation, and people would not be convicted lightly.
"No prosecution can be brought without the written consent of the secretary for justice. And of course, before giving such consent, the secretary for justice will have to carry out what I call the 'proportionality test' to balance the harm towards the community, against the harm towards the personal rights of the individual," Tong said.
"The second safeguard is that it is written in the statute that no person shall be convicted on the testimony of a single witness. The witness evidence must be corroborated by other evidence before a conviction can be sought."
But Civic Party chairman Alan Leong, who is also a barrister, said the authorities had used the sedition law to arrest Cheng in order to "silence dissent".
He noted that Cheng had clashed with Police Commissioner Chris Tang during a council meeting in January and said the force now appears to be using this "draconian" law to oppress her.
Leong warned that the move will damage the rule of law, as well as Hong Kong's image abroad.
"If we are using such an archaic ... political charge against political dissent in Hong Kong, then we are sending a message to the world that we are not respecting the Basic Law, especially the human rights and freedom and rule of law enshrined in the Basic Law," he said.
"This message is very damaging to Hong Kong, it we want to stay a trusted international financial centre."
Sedition laws have safeguards, says Ronny Tong
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