Two Hong Kong political activists were yesterday found guilty of attempting to desecrate the Hong Kong regional flag during a protest rally last year, a verdict that’s being seen as an indication about the limits of free speech in the Special Administrative Region.

Koo Sze-yiu and Ma Wan-ki, members of the League of Social Democrats party, stood accused of setting fire to a flag outside the central government liaison office (the Chinese government’s office in Hong Kong) during a protest on April 1 last year. They denied this charge.

The pair were yesterday sentenced under the Regional Flag and Regional Emblem Ordinance, which decrees that those convicted of defacing the flag are liable to a fine and one to three years prison sentence.

A protester waves a Hong Kong colonial flag during a protest last year. Pic: AP.

In his statement at the hearing, Magistrate Joseph To Ho-shing rejected the idea that the defacing of the flag conveyed a political message.

“The defence has failed to provide evidence to establish the connection between the desecration of the regional flag and the promotion of democracy and human rights,” he said.

The current Hong Kong flag, a white bauhinia flower on a red background, was first raised on July 11997, the day when sovereignty of Hong Kong was returned to China.

Before the trial began, To also rejected the two defendant’s claims that the ordinance was unconstitutional because the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that freedom of expression should not be restricted.

Several online commentators have interpreted the ruling as an indication about the limits of freedom of speech within the Hong Kong autonomous region.

On Monday, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed massive spying operations by the US National Security Agency, stated that he had chosen to seek refuge in Hong Kong because of the region’s “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.”

Koo Sze-yiu, one of the pair sentenced yesterday, was previously sentenced on February 8 to nine months imprisonment for defacing national and regional flags. He was found guilty of burning the Chinese national on June 10 last year to protest the death of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang, and waving defaced Chinese and Hong Kong flags during protests on January 1 of this year.

To protest against the decision, many netizens uploaded pictures of altered versions of the Chinese national flag online. The court decision also sparked demonstrations by human rights groups and political activists outside of Stanley Prison with calls for the laws protecting the flags to be changed.

(READ MORE: Hong Kong an unlikely refuge for US whistleblower)

“Human rights are above the regime,” Avery Ng, deputy chair of the League of Social Democrats said at the time. “The people are higher than the nation, their rights to express and elect must not be deprived. We must immediately abolish the National Flag and the Regional Flag Act.”

In May, Koo’s sentence was halved following a legal appeal, with the magistrate noting that other sentences for defiling flags had been much less severe.

There have been a growing number of occurrences of flags have been used by Hong Kong citizens to make political statements. Both the Union Jack and the colonial-era Hong Kong flag have been making increasing appearances at pro-democracy protests such as the annual July 1march, as well as anti-government rallies.

(READ MORE: Disgruntled Hong Kong embraces Union Jack as symbol of freedom)

The frequent appearance of the flag prompted Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, to warn in March that as Hong Kong moved to universal sufferage in 2017, use of such symbols would not be tolerated.

“The Chinese people will not accept some Hongkongers waving the colonial flag,” he said.