Jimmy Lai set for start of ‘show trial’ under Hong Kong national security laws

Jimmy Lai set for start of ‘show trial’ under Hong Kong national security laws

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The trial of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai over charges of colluding with foreign forces is expected to begin on Monday, in a legal process that has been heavily criticised by the British government and described by his family as a “show trial”.

The founder of now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily will be tried in one of a number of landmark cases brought since new national security legislation was passed in Hong Kong in 2020.

Lai, a 76-year-old British citizen, faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for allegedly publishing seditious material. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. Other senior journalists and executives from Apple Daily who were arrested have pleaded guilty, but the circumstances around their prosecution remains unclear.

The trial represents a potential new diplomatic flashpoint and will be closely watched by foreign envoys, legal scholars and Hong Kong’s business community. It will also be a key test for Hong Kong’s judicial independence from the Xi Jinping administration in Beijing.

The trial is slated to continue for 80 days until March next year.

The British government says Mr Lai has been “deliberately targeted”, with a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) spokesperson saying the legal case had become “highly politicised”.

“British national Jimmy Lai’s case is a priority for HMG [His Majesty’s Government], which has been raised on multiple occasions with the Chinese government, most recently when the foreign secretary spoke to Wang Yi this week,” the spokesperson told The Observer.

They added: “Mr Lai’s prosecution has been highly politicised – he and others are being deliberately targeted to silence criticism under the guise of national security.”

His son, Sebastien Lai, said he had not seen his father in three years since his arrest and that he missed simple things like fmamily dinners. He criticised the fact that the trial will take place in front of three government-appointed judges, rather than a jury.

“There’s actually no anxiety involved once you think about it because it’s a complete show trial. The result is already predetermined,” said Sebastien Lai, who lives in the Taiwanese capital Taipei. On the eve of the trial, Mr Lai was described as “one of the most notorious anti-China elements” by the Chinese foreign ministry last week.

His son said that as far as he knew, Mr Lai was “doing OK”.

“He’s 76 years old and has been in solitary confinement for the last three years, so I can’t imagine what that does to a person physically and mentally,” Sebastien Lai added.

“I always go back and forth – would I rather my father was with me instead of standing up for the freedom of others? And my conclusion is I’m tremendously inspired by him and I’m very proud he’s my dad.”

Human rights and press freedom groups have criticised Mr Lai’s case as an attack on freedom of expression by the authorities in Hong Kong, with media organisations around the world – including The Independent – backing a campaign for his release earlier this year.

“This case has been an attack on press freedom and freedom of expression from the very start,” said Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for China.

“The Hong Kong authorities must release Jimmy Lai immediately and unconditionally and expunge his criminal convictions. No one should be prosecuted solely for exercising their human rights.

“Lai is the most high-profile public figure prosecuted under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, and the world will be watching. His trial epitomises the rapid decline of rule of law in Hong Kong,” she said.

The prosecution of Jimmy Lai, she added, shows how Hong Kong’s “repressive National Security Law is being used to stifle press freedom and crush civil society”.

“He has already been arrested for his newspaper’s journalism, denied the right to bail and prevented from choosing his own lawyer. Now he faces a sham trial presided over by a judge handpicked by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive,” Ms Brooks said.

“This comes on top of separate politically motivated convictions over ‘unauthorised assemblies’ and fraud, and after more than a year of delays that have taken the start date of this trial past Lai’s 76th birthday.”

The proceedings will provide an insight into the workings of Hong Kong’s security law, said Maya Wang, associate director at the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

“I think in the end, Jimmy Lai will be imprisoned. The question is for how long,” Ms Wang told Al Jazeera.

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