The long-awaited – and delayed – trial on nationwide safety fees of jailed Hong Kong billionaire Jimmy Lai has been postponed for 10 months after the prosecution mentioned it was ready for a choice from Beijing on whether or not the media tycoon ought to be allowed to have a British lawyer on his defence staff.
Lai, the founder and chairperson of the now-closed newspaper Apple Each day, is charged with “colluding with international forces” and is essentially the most distinguished democracy campaigner to face trial underneath the regulation.
The 75-year-old, behind bars since December 2020, may face life in jail if discovered responsible.
Lai has argued by means of the Hong Kong courts to get his most popular lawyer, veteran British barrister Timothy Owen, on his defence staff. The Courtroom of Last Attraction (CFA) — the territory’s highest court docket — in late November dismissed a authorities enchantment in opposition to two decrease courts’ ruling to permit Lai his alternative of counsel.
However the authorities has claimed that permitting international attorneys into nationwide safety trials may reveal “state secrets and techniques” and after the CFA ruling, Hong Kong Chief Govt John Lee requested China’s prime legislative physique to “interpret” Hong Kong’s Primary Legislation, its mini-constitution, on the problem.
The Standing Committee of the Nationwide Individuals’s Congress is anticipated to satisfy later this month, and Lai’s trial on Tuesday was postponed till September 25 subsequent yr pending its choice.
Whereas the Lai case is just not but on the committee’s agenda, it could mark the seventh time since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese language rule in 1997 that it has intervened in such points.
“The Standing Committee’s choice will additional injury the independence of attorneys in Hong Kong and make it even tougher for these in political trials to train their proper to authorized counsel,” Human Rights Watch mentioned in an announcement launched forward of the trial on Tuesday.
As a former British colony, Hong Kong lengthy permitted judges and attorneys from frequent regulation jurisdictions to practise within the metropolis. Many have left because the nationwide safety laws was imposed, and a Standing Committee ruling may additional diminish their function.
“It’s apparent that the CFA has been in impact dropping its remaining adjudication energy promised by the Primary Legislation, when the manager authorities disrespects the native frequent regulation system and judicial independence,” mentioned Eric Lai, the Hong Kong Legislation Fellow of the Georgetown Heart for Asian Legislation.
“It chooses to not amend legal guidelines with public session, however to take a quick observe with out checks to realize a political finish. This may create a chilling impact on the native courts dealing with political trials that Beijing pays a lot consideration to.”
The nationwide safety fees Jimmy Lai faces reportedly encompass tweets he made looking for consideration from international politicians, a gathering with the then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019, and a chat present he hosted on Apple Each day’s digital platform the place he interviewed international politicians.
Different proof consists of his requires international governments and politicians to help Hong Kong’s 2019 protests and to sanction Hong Kong officers.
A number of the fees stem from the years earlier than the safety regulation was imposed.
William Nee, analysis and advocacy coordinator at Chinese language Human Rights Defenders, mentioned makes an attempt to regulate Lai’s authorized illustration are an echo of mainland China’s authorized system, the place activists are frequently denied the correct to decide on their very own lawyer.
They’re additionally often discovered responsible as a result of mainland Chinese language courts have a 99 % conviction fee.
Lai is because of stand trial alone earlier than three nationwide safety judges hand-picked by Hong Kong’s chief govt.
There might be no jury.
“I feel that given the system they’ve constructed in Hong Kong makes a responsible verdict very, very doubtless. The federal government can management the police, the prosecution, and the judiciary to a big extent by means of the choice of [National Security Law] judges and now they’re attempting to regulate who may be his authorized defence,” he informed Al Jazeera. “Given all this, it looks like a responsible verdict is extremely doubtless as a result of they’re making a rigged system, not as a result of he’s responsible of those crimes.”
The case marks Lai’s fifth trial because the safety laws ushered in a brand new period for Hong Kong’s once-respected authorized system, which fell from fifteenth place in 2015 to twenty second in 2022 within the World Justice Venture’s Rule of Legislation Index.
The nationwide safety legal guidelines have largely been used to retroactively prosecute members within the metropolis’s months-long 2019 democracy protests in addition to leaders of its pro-democracy camp.
Lai has been in custody since December 2020 after he was arrested on separate fees and denied bail.
He’s now serving a 20-month sentence associated to a few separate protests and vigils between August 2019 and June 2020.
In October, he was convicted of fraud for breaching the phrases of a lease signed with a authorities firm for Apple Each day workplace house, and on Saturday, was sentenced to 5 years and 9 months in jail on the costs.
Human rights teams say the slew of fees level to Lai because the goal of a “vendetta” by Beijing.
“Beijing’s elaborate prison case in opposition to Jimmy Lai is a vendetta in opposition to a number one proponent of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong,” mentioned Maya Wang, affiliate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities ought to drop the case in opposition to Lai and free him instantly.”
There seems little likelihood that may occur.
Lai faces one other nationwide safety trial for allegedly aiding a gaggle of democracy activists who tried to flee to Taiwan by speedboat in August 2020.
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