Hong Kong’s activist publisher Jimmy Lai set to go on trial

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Jailed pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai will go on trial in Hong Kong on Monday for national security crimes, facing life in prison in a case that has sparked international condemnation.

Lai, who is 76, is charged with several counts of “colluding with foreign forces” – a crime under a national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020 following massive pro-democracy protests.

The case against Lai, which will see him tried without a jury, is being closely watched as a test of how many of the civil liberties the city once boasted remain.

More than 30 people have been convicted under Hong Kong’s security law, but Lai was one of the most recognisable figures in the pro-democracy movement.

Lai is the first to contest the charge of “foreign collusion” – punishable with life behind bars.

Hong Kong’s crackdown has also seen police offer huge bounties for activists who fled the city, in a move that has been strongly condemned by the United States and Britain.

The most serious charges against Lai revolve around Apple Daily, which he founded in 1995 and was once Hong Kong’s most popular Chinese-language tabloid.

The paper was staunchly critical of Beijing and supported Hong Kong’s huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.

It later called for international sanctions against Chinese and local officials.

The outlet was forced to shutter in June 2021 after authorities used the security law to raid it twice and freeze assets worth HK$18 million ($2.3 million).

Authorities charged Lai and six former Apple Daily executives with “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces.”

Lai was singled out for an additional collusion charge.

All defendants except Lai have pleaded guilty and some have agreed to testify for the prosecution.

The court on Monday will also hear a raft of other charges against Lai – which include “seditious publication.”

The United States, Britain, the European Union and the United Nations have all expressed concerns about Lai’s case – which Beijing has dismissed as smearing and interference.

Lai’s son Sebastien last month told AFP the case was “an opportunity for Hong Kong to show whether they are actually rule-of-law compliant.”

The world “should be paying attention to my father’s case, to the case of Hong Kong,” he said.

The Apple Daily owner’s arrest came during the rapid erosion of press freedom and political dissent in Hong Kong, with analysts saying the trial will show whether the city’s courts can rule independently of Beijing.

How judges draw the line between the concepts of advocacy and collusion will be a key issue to watch, according to Georgetown University legal scholar Eric Lai.

“It is important to observe how the court would define ordinary overseas advocacy activities as a crime,” Lai told AFP. The case was “also worth concern in terms of fair trial and due process,” he added.

Senior Beijing and Hong Kong officials have repeatedly issued statements condemning Lai since 2019.

China’s foreign affairs commissioner in Hong Kong in September accused Lai of being “an agent of the anti-Chinese forces in the United States and the West” and a secessionist.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Britain’s foreign office said that Foreign Secretary David Cameron met this month with Lai’s son, Sebastien, “to listen to his concerns for his father.”

“The U.K. opposes the National Security Law and will continue to stand by Jimmy Lai and the people of HK,” the office said on Wednesday.

Beijing blasted the meeting as a clear sign of Britain’s “malicious intentions,” calling Lai “a driving force behind the chaos in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong follows a common law system due to its colonial history, but Lai’s case differs from how criminal trials are usually run.

He will be tried, without a jury, by three judges drawn from a pool of jurists handpicked by Hong Kong’s leader.

Lai has been jailed since Hong Kong’s top court denied him bail in late 2020 – a change from the city’s previous practices on pre-trial detention.

His case has been further delayed after Hong Kong authorities last year sought to bar Lai from being represented by British rights lawyer Tim Owen, citing security risks.

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