Jimmy Lai’s security trial begins in Hong Kong amid international uproar

The pro-democracy media tycoon has been in jail for three years, accused of ‘collusion with foreign forces.’
By Gigi Lee and Ng Ting Hong for RFA Cantonese, Gao Feng for RFA Mandarin, Taejun Kang for RFA
2023.12.18
Taipei, Taiwan
Jimmy Lai’s security trial begins in Hong Kong amid international uproar Police officers stand guard outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts during the national security trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, in Hong Kong, China Dec. 18, 2023.
Lam Yik/Reuters

Updated Dec. 18 2023, 1:45 p.m. ET

Hong Kong pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai appeared in court Monday on the first day of a weeks-long national security trial, as members of the public and journalists queued for a seat in the gallery, watched over by armed police patrolling the area with bomb-detecting sniffer dogs.

The 76-year-old Lai, who has been behind bars for nearly three years, was escorted to the West Kowloon Law Courts Building by officers of the Correctional Emergency Response Team, known as the "Black Panthers."

In the dock, Lai appeared calm and relaxed in a gray suit-jacket and open-necked shirt, occasionally waving, smiling or nodding to familiar faces in the public gallery, as the U.K. and U.S. governments called for his immediate release.

Lai faces two counts of "conspiracy to collude with foreign forces" and one count of "collusion with foreign forces" under a draconian security law imposed by Beijing in the wake of the 2019 protest movement, along with a charge relating to "seditious" publications. 

Much of the prosecution's evidence -- in a trial that will take place before a panel of government-appointment judges and no jury -- centers on opinion articles published in Lai's now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper.

Beijing imposed the 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.

The law, which applies to speech and actions anywhere in the world, criminalizes several broadly defined offenses including secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist activities, all of which carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment, and has been widely criticized by rights groups and governments for decimating the city's promised rights and freedoms under Chinese rule.

Despite warnings last week from security chief Chris Tang of "firm action" against anyone seen as "disturbing" the legal proceedings, dozens of people lined up overnight for one of the 400 seats in the public gallery, in a bid to show their support in the only way they can without running afoul of the law themselves.

Some shouted out "Support Jimmy Lai!" in English as they entered the building, which will relay proceedings across multiple courtrooms.

No acquittal seen

Few who waited outside expected Lai to be acquitted, in a case presided over by government-picked national security judges Esther Toh, Alex Lee and Susana D'Almada Remedios and no jury.

"I'm pretty clear in my mind ... as to the outcome of this case," one man who gave only the initials JC told RFA Cantonese. 

"But I figured I might see and hear something different to what you read in the media if I came to the court in person," he said. "I'm not very hopeful, but about 1% of me still hopes to see justice done."

A man who gave only the surname Sung said he was there to show support for Lai, who he described as suffering alongside the rest of Hong Kong's people.

"He's suffering in court, and we're suffering here outside the court -- we're all suffering together," he said.

ENG_CHN_JimmyLaiTrial_12182023_2.JPG
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, looks on as he leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van, in Hong Kong, China on Feb. 1, 2021. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Key pro-democracy figures also turned up to show support, including outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen and former pro-democracy lawmaker Emily Lau.

"I'm here to support Jimmy Lai," Lau said. "I hope that he and the others on trial or awaiting trial will get a fair and open trial."

A number of diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Switzerland lined up alongside Lai's supporters, but declined requests for comment.

Police corralled more than 100 journalists into a cordoned-off area dozens of meters from the door, preventing them from dashing across to shoot photos or video of key figures attending the trial, and limiting their access to the prison van that brought Lai to the court.

Lai has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and his defense attorney Robert Pang spent most of the first session arguing that the charges brought under a colonial-era sedition law had passed the statute of limitations.

The trial, which has been repeatedly delayed as the government contested Lai's use of London-based King's Counsel Timothy Owen, prompted calls for Lai's immediate release in London and Washington.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said he was “gravely concerned” about the trial on Sunday, calling for the immediate release of Lai, a British citizen.

“As a prominent and outspoken journalist and publisher, Jimmy Lai has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association,” Cameron said in a statement, adding that the security law was in breach of the commitments China made to Hong Kong when it resumed sovereignty over the territory in 1997.

'Sham' trial

The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration included a promise to retain Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms for 50 years following the 1997 handover.

“I urge the Chinese authorities to repeal the National Security Law and end the prosecution of all individuals charged under it,” Cameron said. 

“I call on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution and release Jimmy Lai.”

Separately, the United States called for Lai’s immediate release and condemned the prosecution.

“Lai has been held in pre-trial detention for more than 1,000 days, and Hong Kong and Beijing authorities have denied him his choice of legal representation,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement. “We call on Hong Kong authorities to immediately release Jimmy Lai and all others imprisoned for defending their rights.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party denounced what he called a "sham trial" against Lai "on dubious charges" that showed how Beijing had destroyed Hong Kong's freedoms.

"In reality, his only crime was fighting for freedom and democracy in his beloved home of Hong Kong," he said in a statement.

"It’s time for the U.S. government to take action and recognize that there is no difference between the CCP’s control of Hong Kong and of the mainland PRC."

Ahead of the trial, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also released a statement, calling for the city to release Lai, while Human Rights Watch condemned the trial as a “travesty.”

Translated by Luisetta MudieEdited by Mike Firn and Luisetta Mudie.

Update adds comments from U.S. lawmaker.

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