Media magnate Jimmy Lai pleads 'not guilty' in security trial

Prosecutors accuse him of being the 'mastermind' in campaign for sanctions on Hong Kong, Chinese officials.
By Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin, Ng Ting Hong for RFA Cantonese
2024.01.02
Media magnate Jimmy Lai pleads 'not guilty' in security trial Media tycoon Jimmy Lai looks on as he leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van, in Hong Kong, Feb. 1, 2021.
(Tyrone SiuReuters)

Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to charges of "collusion with foreign forces" under a national security law, as prosecutors laid out details of the case against him.

Lai, 76, whose long-delayed trial has come to symbolize the ongoing crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong in the wake of the 2019 protest movement, entered the plea after being accused of calling on foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials, and of conspiracy to publish seditious publications.

Lai, founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily, responded "not guilty," three times from the dock, flanked by security guards and amid a court packed with his family members, friends, supporters and foreign diplomats.

His landmark trial is being closely watched by the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States, where officials have slammed the crackdown as being in breach of China's obligations under the terms of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong.

Beijing imposed the National Security Law, which criminalizes public criticism of the authorities, as part of a crackdown on massive pro-democracy protests in 2019, insisting that the move was necessary to quell unrest. 

Lai has been an outspoken supporter of the pro-democracy movement, and several editors at his former paper are also awaiting sentencing for calling for international sanctions in columns and opinion pieces.

‘Radical figure’

It comes as Lai, a British citizen, marks three years behind bars. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted.

The prosecution said Lai was "a radical figure" who had conspired with others to incite "hatred and opposition" against the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities, a criminal offense under the 2020 National Security Law.

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Jimmy Lai's wife Teresa Lai [second left] and his son Lai Shun Yan [right] arrive at West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts to attend Lai's trial in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. (Billy H.C. Kwok/AP)

Naming him as a "mastermind" in the case, they said Lai had arranged through his personal assistant Mark Simon to meet with people from different walks of life in the United States, as well as setting up multiple social media groups to communicate with others during his campaign for sanctions.

Prosecutors played several videos of Lai calling for sanctions against China, as evidence of "collusion with foreign forces."

They also named several foreign politicians and human rights activists Lai had been in contact with in recent years, including the founder of the London-based Hong Kong Watch, Benedict Rogers, Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China Executive Director Luke de Pulford and former U.S. Consul-General to Hong Kong Ambassador James Cunningham, who chairs the board of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation. 

They also listed Bill Browder, a human rights campaigner who pioneered the introduction of Magnitsky sanctions worldwide and former Japanese member of parliament Shiori Kanno.

‘Show trial’

Rogers said the prosecution's opening arguments indicated that the proceedings were a "show trial."

"This simply shows, as we have said all along, that this is a show trial and has absolutely nothing to do with genuine national security," he said in a statement on the group's website.

"The ‘crime’ Mr Lai is accused of is talking with foreign politicians and activists, including myself, and engaging in journalism – which, as the publisher of a major newspaper in Hong Kong, ought to be regarded as entirely normal legitimate activity," he said.

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A prison van carrying Jimmy Lai arrives at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. (Billy H.C. Kwok/AP)

He said much of the activity used in the prosecution case predated the National Security Law, meaning that the law is being applied retroactively, despite promises this wouldn't happen when the law was imposed on Hong Kong in July 2020.

Lord Alton of Liverpool, Vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong, said the trial was a "charade that has nothing to do with justice."

"It is simply an assertion of Chinese Communist Party authoritarianism," he said. "It makes a mockery of the rule of law."

"This show trial should be ended forthwith and the U.K. government should say so loud and clear," he said.

Rogers said the trial illustrated how "dramatically and extensively" Hong Kong’s basic freedoms and the rule of law have been dismantled, and called for Lai's immediate and unconditional release.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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