HONG KONG: International pressure was building over a landmark national security trial in Hong Kong for leading China critic Jimmy Lai, with British authorities calling for consular access to the jailed democrat as his trial entered its second day on Tuesday (Dec 19).
Lai, 76, the founder of now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and one of the most prominent critics of China’s Communist Party leadership, faces several collusion with foreign forces charges under a China-imposed national security law that could see him jailed for life.
The trial has become a diplomatic focal point and a key test for the financial hub’s judicial independence and freedoms, with diplomats including those from the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Canada and Australia in attendance.
The British and US governments have called for Lai’s immediate release, saying the trial is politically motivated.
“We’ll continue to press for consular access to Mr Lai,” Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the UK minister of state for the Indo-Pacific, said in British parliament on Monday, while reiterating Lai is a British citizen.
“We are not able to provide consular access because we are not allowed to visit him in prison,” she added.
The Hong Kong government said in a statement that all defendants receive a fair trial under local laws, while warning any interference “could very likely” constitute the offence of contempt of court or perverting the course of justice.
“Any attempt by any country, organisation, or individual to interfere with the judicial proceedings … by means of political power or media or any other means, thereby resulting in a defendant not being able to have a fair trial that one should receive, is a reprehensible act,” the Hong Kong government spokesman said.
Lai has faced a slew of litigation, including charges under a China-imposed national security law that was enacted in response to a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2019.
When Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing promised the city a high degree of autonomy including the right to free speech and protest.
Western critics say Beijing has reneged on those promises amid the current national security law crackdown that has been used to arrest over 280 pro-democracy activists and politicians including Lai.
Beijing, however, says the security law has brought stability to the city.
Lai and others involved in the trial, including senior journalists at Apple Daily, face a conspiracy to publish seditious publications charge.
Lai also faces foreign collusion charges that include allegations of calling on countries, including the United States, to impose sanctions against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments between July 2020 and June 2021.
Lai has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Lai’s lawyer, Robert Pang, has so far sought to scrap or limit the timeframe of the prosecution’s sedition conspiracy charge, due to a requirement under local laws that charges must be brought within six months of an alleged offence.
“What the prosecution cannot do … is to sit on their backsides, do nothing, and then two to three years down the road,” bring the conspiracy to commit sedition charge, said Pang.
The government prosecutor Anthony Chau, however, called this argument “absurd”, saying Lai and the Apple Daily had published a total of 161 seditious articles between Apr 1, 2019 and Jun 24, 2021 – when the newspaper was finally shut down following a police raid and a freeze on its assets that crippled its operations.
“Conspiracy by nature is continuing,” Chau told the court, saying Lai’s criminal enterprise to publish seditious articles over this entire period should be considered as a whole.
The judges later adjourned the trial to Friday when they are expected to deliver a decision on this sedition matter. The trial is expected to last 80 days.