The Jimmy Lai trial begins in Hong Kong with a high-security presence as a historic national security case.
Jimmy Lai, a media entrepreneur and pro-democracy campaigner, is on trial in a tightly guarded Hong Kong court on national security accusations that could lead to life in prison.
Lai’s trial, which is anticipated to take many months, is one of the most high-profile trials in Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent, and it has been extensively denounced by rights groups and foreign nations.
The 76-year-old pro-democracy activist and publisher of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper has been charged with plotting to coordinate with foreign forces to threaten national security under broad regulations imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in 2020, as well as conspiring to publish seditious information.
If convicted, as analysts believe is probable, he risks up to life in jail. His case will be tried by three government-appointed national security judges.
The first day of the trial ended without Lai entering a plea. His legal team argued that the sedition accusations, which were filed under a colonial-era code rather than the national security law, should be withdrawn since they exceeded a six-month statute of limitations.
Lai is charged of conspiring to print, publish, sell, or distribute “seditious publications” between April 2019 and the final edition of Apple Daily on June 24, 2021. Lai will be charged on December 28, 2021.
Lai, who hasn’t been seen in public since 2021, came in court in a suit on Monday, looking slimmer than in prior appearances. He grinned and waved to his family, who were seated in the gallery.
He is also a British citizen, and representatives from the US, UK, Australia, and Canada were on hand to watch the trial.
Before the trial at West Kowloon court began at 10 a.m. local time (0200 GMT), about 100 people had queued up for public gallery seats.
To demonstrate their support, other members of the public waved at Lai. Among those in attendance was Hong Kong’s Roman Catholic cardinal, Joseph Zen, a passionate democracy champion in the city.
In apparent anticipation of protests, Hong Kong’s security chief, Chris Tang, deployed a heavy police presence for the trial, with policemen stationed outside the court since Sunday.
Officers armed with bomb-sniffing dogs, a Chinese-made “Sabretooth” armored vehicle, and a bomb disposal van stationed nearby considerably outnumbered civilian attendees.
A mainland university student stated he had been there for nearly an hour. He stated that he had read about Lai on X and was interested in how the trial would proceed.
“I don’t think people should be sentenced for their speech,” stated the anonymous politics student.
A woman in line, who also declined to provide her name, said she had been paying careful attention to the news concerning Lai. The retiree stated that she had never gone to court before and was unsure what to anticipate.
Several police officers surrounded veteran campaigner Alexandra “Grandma” Wong with cordon tape across the street from the courthouse. She was waving a British flag, which she got famous for waving during the 2019 Hong Kong demonstrations.
Among those queuing were numerous law students from the University of Hong Kong, who stated that they were come to watch the trial as part of their research on national security law.
Lai has been imprisoned since December 2020, receiving a sentence of more than five years on fraud charges for breach of a leasing contract, an allegation his supporters claim is politically motivated.
He was detained in August 2020 and later charged with the national security legislation offenses for which he is presently on trial. The allegations were labeled “highly politicised” by the UK government at the time.
David Cameron, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, denounced the “politically motivated prosecution” and appealed for Lai’s release on Sunday.
“The national security law of Hong Kong clearly violates the Sino-British joint declaration.” Its ongoing existence and usage demonstrates China’s violation of international agreements,” Cameron added. “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.”
The US State Department also decried the trial, stating that Lai’s choice of legal counsel was refused. It demanded his freedom, as well as the release of “all others imprisoned for defending their rights.”
In reaction to the previous year’s large pro-democracy protests, Beijing implemented the national security law in June 2020, with the approval of the Hong Kong administration. Hundreds of people have been imprisoned since then under its wide mandate, which prohibits acts of sedition, secession, foreign cooperation, and terrorism. Critics have accused Hong Kong authorities of exploiting it to stifle dissent.
Hong Kong officials remain unconvinced. Tang has previously hailed the national security law’s 100% conviction rate, and last month stated that the open trial of Lai will let the people to see how “bad” his alleged offenses were.