The long-awaited – and delayed – trial on national security charges of jailed Hong Kong billionaire Jimmy Lai has been postponed for 10 months after the prosecution said it was waiting for a decision from Beijing on whether the media tycoon should be allowed to have a British lawyer on his defence team.
Lai, the founder and chairperson of the now-closed newspaper Apple Daily, is charged with “colluding with foreign forces” and is the most prominent democracy campaigner to face trial under the law.
The 75-year-old, behind bars since December 2020, could face life in prison if found guilty.
Lai has argued through the Hong Kong courts to get his preferred lawyer, veteran British barrister Timothy Owen, on his defence team. The Court of Final Appeal (CFA) — the territory’s highest court — in late November dismissed a government appeal against two lower courts’ ruling to allow Lai his choice of counsel.
But the government has claimed that allowing foreign lawyers into national security trials could reveal “state secrets” and after the CFA ruling, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee asked China’s top legislative body to “interpret” Hong Kong’s Basic Law, its mini-constitution, on the issue.
The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is expected to meet later this month, and Lai’s trial on Tuesday was postponed until September 25 next year pending its decision.
While the Lai case is not yet on the committee’s agenda, it would mark the seventh time since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 that it has intervened in such issues.
“The Standing Committee’s decision will further damage the independence of lawyers in Hong Kong and make it even harder for those in political trials to exercise their right to legal counsel,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement released ahead of the trial on Tuesday.
As a former British colony, Hong Kong long permitted judges and lawyers from common law jurisdictions to practise in the city. Many have left since the national security legislation was imposed, and a Standing Committee ruling could further diminish their role.
“It is obvious that the CFA has been in effect losing its final adjudication power promised by the Basic Law, when the executive government disrespects the local common law system and judicial independence,” said Eric Lai, the Hong Kong Law Fellow of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.
“It chooses not to amend laws with public consultation, but to take a fast track without checks to achieve a political end. This would create a chilling effect on the local courts handling political trials that Beijing pays much attention to.”
The national security charges Jimmy Lai faces reportedly consist of tweets he made seeking attention from foreign politicians, a meeting with the then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019, and a talk show he hosted on Apple Daily’s digital platform where he interviewed foreign politicians.
Other evidence includes his calls for foreign governments and politicians to support Hong Kong’s 2019 protests and to sanction Hong Kong officials.
Some of the charges stem from the years before the security law was imposed.
William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said attempts to control Lai’s legal representation are an echo of mainland China’s legal system, where activists are regularly denied the right to choose their own lawyer.
They are also usually found guilty because mainland Chinese courts have a 99 percent conviction rate.
Lai is due to stand trial alone before three national security judges hand-picked by Hong Kong’s chief executive.
There will be no jury.
“I think that given the system they’ve constructed in Hong Kong makes a guilty verdict very, very likely. The government can control the police, the prosecution, and the judiciary to a large extent through the selection of [National Security Law] judges and now they’re trying to control who can be his legal defence,” he told Al Jazeera. “Given all this, it seems like a guilty verdict is highly likely because they’re creating a rigged system, not because he’s guilty of these crimes.”
The case marks Lai’s fifth trial since the security legislation ushered in a new era for Hong Kong’s once-respected legal system, which fell from 15th place in 2015 to 22nd in 2022 in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index.
The national security laws have largely been used to retroactively prosecute participants in the city’s months-long 2019 democracy protests as well as leaders of its pro-democracy camp.
Lai has been in custody since December 2020 after he was arrested on separate charges and denied bail.
He is now serving a 20-month sentence related to three separate protests and vigils between August 2019 and June 2020.
In October, he was convicted of fraud for breaching the terms of a lease signed with a government company for Apple Daily office space, and on Saturday, was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on the charges.
Human rights groups say the slew of charges point to Lai as the target of a “vendetta” by Beijing.
“Beijing’s elaborate criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a vendetta against a leading proponent of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should drop the case against Lai and free him immediately.”
There appears little chance that will happen.
Lai faces another national security trial for allegedly aiding a group of democracy activists who attempted to flee to Taiwan by speedboat in August 2020.
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