The long-awaited – and delayed – trial on national security charges against jailed Hong Kong billionaire Jimmy Lai has been adjourned for 10 months after prosecutors said they were awaiting a decision. decision from Beijing on whether the media mogul should be allowed to have a British national. attorney on his defense team.
The 75-year-old, who has been behind bars since December 2020, could face life in prison if found guilty.
Lai has argued through the Hong Kong courts to get his favorite lawyer, veteran British lawyer Timothy Owen, on his defense team. The Court of Final Appeal (CFA) — the territory’s highest court — in late November rejected the government’s appeal against the rulings of two lower courts allowing Lai to choose his attorney.
But the government has stated that allowing foreign lawyers to participate in national security trials could reveal “state secrets”, and following the CFA ruling, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee has asked China’s top legislature to “interpret” Hong Kong’s Basic Law, its mini-constitution, on the matter.
The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is scheduled to meet later this month, and Lai’s trial on Tuesday has been adjourned until September 25 next year to await a verdict.
Although the Lai case is not yet on the committee’s agenda, it will mark the seventh time since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 it has interfered in matters such as so.
“The Standing Committee’s decision will further damage the independence of lawyers in Hong Kong and expose those in the hearings,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued before the trial on Tuesday. The more difficult it is for political courts to exercise the right to legal advice.”
A former British colony, Hong Kong has long allowed judges and lawyers from common law jurisdictions to practice in the city. Many people have gone since national security law is imposedand a Standing Committee ruling could reduce their role even further.
Eric Lai, Hong Kong Law Fellow of the Georgetown Center, said: “It is clear that the CFA has lost the ultimate judicial power promised in the Basic Law, when the executive authorities failed to respect the local common law system. and judicial independence”. for Asian Law.
“It chose not to amend the law in consultation with the public, but to do so quickly without examination to achieve political ends. This will have a chilling effect on the local courts that handle political trials that Beijing pays close attention to.”
The national security charges that Jimmy Lai faced allegedly included tweets he wrote to seek attention from foreign politicians, a meeting with the then US Secretary of State was the Mike Pompeo in 2019 and a talk show he hosts on Apple Daily’s digital platform, where he interviews foreign politicians.
Other evidence included his call for foreign governments and politicians to support the 2019 Hong Kong protests and sanction Hong Kong officials.
Some of the allegations date back to years before the security law was introduced.
William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator for China Human Rights Defenders, said Lai’s efforts to control legal representation are echoes of the mainland Chinese legal system, where activists are frequently denied the right to choose their own attorney.
They are also often found guilty because mainland Chinese courts have a conviction rate of 99%.
Lai will have to stand trial alone before three national security judges chosen by Hong Kong’s chief executive.
There will be no jury.
“I think with the system that they have built in Hong Kong, it is very likely that a guilty verdict will be reached. The government can control the police, the prosecution and the judiciary to a large extent through selection [National Security Law] the judge and now they are trying to control who can be his legal defense,” he told Al Jazeera. “Given all of this, it seems like a guilty verdict is most likely to come because they’re creating a rigged system, not because he committed the crime.”
The case marks Lai’s fifth trial since the security law ushered in a new era for Hong Kong’s once respected legal system, which fell from 15th place in 2015 to 22nd in 2015. 2022 in the ranking. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index.
The national security law has largely been used to retroactively prosecute participants in the city’s months-long pro-democracy protests in 2019 as well as leaders of the pro-democracy camp.
Lai has been in custody since December 2020 after he was arrested on separate charges and was denied bail.
He is currently serving a 20-month sentence in connection with three separate protests and vigils from August 2019 to June 2020.
In October, he was found guilty of fraud for violation of the terms of the lease signed a contract with a government company to buy Apple Daily’s office space, and on Saturday was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on the charge.
Human rights groups say a series of accusations point to Lai as the target of a “revenge” by Beijing.
“Beijing’s complex criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a revenge against a pro-democracy and media freedom advocate,” said Maya Wang, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. top in Hong Kong. “The authorities should drop the case against Lai and release him immediately.”
It seems very unlikely that will happen.
Lai faces another national security trial for allegedly supporting a group democracy activists tried to escape to Taiwan by speedboat in August 2020.