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Hong Kong jails Chinese farmer for flag-burning

20 september 2011, 18:58
Chinese flag
Chinese flag
A mainland Chinese farmer has been jailed for three weeks after setting fire to a Chinese flag in Hong Kong, AFP reports, quoting officials Tuesday, raising questions over freedom of speech in the territory.

The sentence passed on Zhu Rongchang, 74, from China's southern Jiangxi province, is the first prison term of its kind in the city.

It came after he pleaded not guilty to flag desecration, arguing that he was exercising his right to free speech.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 after Beijing guaranteed for 50 years a separate semi-autonomous status with civil liberties -- including the right to protest -- not seen on the mainland.

"The court agrees that freedom of speech is a universal value that is respected and pursued by all people," Magistrate Jason Wan was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post, as he handed down the judgement on Monday.

"But every freedom is restricted in some way. No freedom comes without restrictions. I can appreciate the defendant's trail of thoughts, but his way of expression breached the Hong Kong laws and therefore he is guilty."

Zhu was charged for "publicly and wilfully" burning the Chinese flag at Golden Bauhinia Square in central Hong Kong, a popular tourist attraction, during the July 22 incident, a court spokeswoman confirmed to AFP.

He reportedly lowered the flag from its pole and lit it with a cigarette lighter, in a protest that his lawyer said was aimed at criticising "authoritarian rule" in mainland China.

"He is unhappy that there are no human rights," counsel Newman Lam was quoted as saying by the Post.

The 74-year-old is reportedly the third person charged under legislation which makes desecrating the Chinese national flag an offence punishable by up to three years imprisonment, a law passed hours after the city's 1997 handover.

Zhu however was reportedly the first to be jailed under the law.

In the earlier cases involving two protesters who defaced a home-made national flag at a 1998 demonstration, the court handed out non-custodial sentences requiring lawful conduct for one year.

The activists reportedly cut a hole in the middle, inked out the stars and wrote the Chinese character for "shame" on it.

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