On eve of trial, UK 'stands by' jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai

Lai's son Sebastien calls on the British government to demand his father's immediate release.
By Amelia Loi for RFA Mandarin, Alice Yam for RFA Cantonese
2023.12.13
On eve of trial, UK 'stands by' jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai Britain's Foreign Secretary David_Cameron meets with Sebastien Lai, Jimmy Lai’s son, in London on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.
(X/@FCDOGovUK)

On the eve of pro-democracy media magnate and British citizen Jimmy Lai's national security trial, which begins in Hong Kong on Dec. 18, the British government has said it opposes the city's draconian National Security Law, but stopped short of calling for his release.

"Foreign Secretary @David_Cameron met with Sebastien Lai in London today to listen to his concerns for his father, Jimmy Lai, detained in Hong Kong," the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office said via its account on X, formerly Twitter.

"The UK opposes the National Security Law and will continue to stand by Jimmy Lai and the people of HK," it said, in a statement that fell short of what Lai and London-based campaigners had been hoping for.

Lai, who founded the now-shuttered pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, 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. 

Speaking to Radio Free Asia after the meeting with Cameron, Sebastien Lai called on the British government to send a more direct message to the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.

"I hope the British government will ask the Hong Kong government to release my father immediately," he said. "The U.S. government has called for my father's release, the European Parliament has also done so, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur has also made an appeal."

"This is a very black-and-white case, as he has sacrificed everything for Hong Kong and freedom," he said. "The British government must stand with him."

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Jimmy Lai walks to go for exercise at the Stanley prison in Hong Kong, Aug. 4, 2023. (Louise Delmotte/AP)

Sebastien Lai said he worries about his father's mental and physical health.

"My father is 76 years old," he said. "He just sits in jail every day and doesn't know when he will be released."

"You can imagine how sad and worried we are," he said.

‘Unfair’ law

The meeting followed a letter from Hong Kong Watch to Cameron and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak marking Lai's 76th birthday, urging them both to meet with his son.

"Hong Kong Watch thanks the Foreign Secretary for agreeing to meet with Sebastien Lai this week as he visits the UK ahead of his father’s expected national security trial on Dec. 18, 2023. We hope the Prime Minister will do the same," the group said in a statement on its website.

To Yiu-ming, a former assistant professor at the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the repeated delays and Lai's lengthy pretrial incarceration violate a key principle of justice in a common law system.

"They violate the principle of the presumption of innocence, which is very frustrating, not just for Mr. Lai." To said. 

"It shows the overall lack of respect for the presumption of innocence under the National Security Law, which has managed to change the entire legal system," he said.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who heads the Lais' international legal team, said the charges against Jimmy Lai are being brought under an "unfair" law.

"Jimmy Lai has already spent three years in prison for his journalism and his peaceful pro-democracy activities," she said in a statement on the website of Doughty Street Chambers. "He is now being prosecuted for illegitimate reasons, under an unfair law, and in a broken legal system." 

"He needs the UK Government to do all they can to secure his freedom."

ENG_CHN_JimmyLaiTrial_12132023.3.jpg
Sebastien Lai, son of Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, speaking during an interview at a park in Taipei, Nov. 27, 2023. "My father is 76 years old," he says. "He just sits in jail every day and doesn't know when he will be released. You can imagine how sad and worried we are." (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)

Hong Kong Watch patron Lord Alton of Liverpool agreed.

"The key question now is whether [Cameron] finally joins the U.S. and Europe’s Parliament in calling for Jimmy Lai’s immediate and unconditional release," he told Radio Free Asia. 

"The U.K. Government needs to demonstrate that it stands up for its own citizens and puts as much effort into fighting their corner as it does trying to drum up business deals with the [Chinese Communist Party] regime."

The Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom said the British government was "confusing right and wrong and interfering with the rule of law in Hong Kong" in a Sunday statement on Lai's case and the National Security Law.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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