Hong Kong court rejects pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai to fight for British lawyer

HONG KONG — A Hong Kong court rejected an activist publisher’s latest attempt on Friday to use a British lawyer to defend it against national security charges as Beijing tries to crack down on a pro-democracy movement.

Jimmy Lai, the 75-year-old founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, faces up to life in prison if convicted. In November, the city’s Supreme Court approved Lai’s hiring of veteran attorney Timothy Owen in the case, but the city’s national security authorities blocked it.

Lai and most of Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy activists were arrested after Beijing imposed a national security law in the former British colony following massive anti-government protests in 2019. The political saga surrounding Lai’s choice of lawyer is widely part of the city. the liquidation of dissidents after the protests.

On Friday, Judge Jeremy Poon rejected Lai’s request to overturn the National Security Commission’s decision. Poon held that the courts had no jurisdiction over the commission under the Security Act.

The political controversy surrounding Lai’s lawyer began in November, when the government objected to him and asked Beijing to intervene shortly after he was approved by the Supreme Court.

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China’s top legislature has not directly determined whether foreign lawyers who do not normally practice in the city can handle national security cases. But he said the decision rests with the city manager and the commission.

Critics say Beijing’s intervention violated the city’s judicial independence, which was promised to the city when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The committee concluded that allowing Owen to represent Lai would likely pose a national security risk and advised the immigration director to deny any new employment visa applications by Owen that include representing the media mogul in the case. The director of immigration said his department would act on this advice.

Lai’s lawyers filed for a judicial review in April, asking the court to overturn the commission’s and director’s decisions. It was argued that the commission’s duties were related to general policy issues and the coordination of “major works and major operations”.

“There is no authority or jurisdiction to decide the specific issues arising from the cases, let alone to overturn the court’s decisions,” the lawsuit said.

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Robert Pang, one of Lai’s lawyers, insisted at an earlier hearing that the commission had overstepped its authority, saying the court had the power and duty to ensure the law was properly applied.

De Poon ruled on Friday that the decision was entirely within the committee’s authority under the Security Law, as “interpreted,” and that oversight over the committee was reserved solely to China’s central government.

The courts do not have jurisdiction in such cases, “because they clearly fall outside the constitutional jurisdiction of the courts,” he wrote.

Lai’s trial, which originally began on December 1, was postponed until September as the city awaited Beijing’s decision.

He is accused of conspiring with others to impose sanctions or blockades, or engage in hostile activities against Hong Kong or China. He is also facing charges of colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security, as well as a separate charge of sedition under the colonial-era law, which is increasingly being used to suppress dissent.

In December, Lai was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison in a separate fraud case.

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According to Reporters Without Borders, the organization coordinating the move, more than 100 publishers and editors worldwide, including 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureates Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa, signed a joint statement calling for his immediate release.

However, the government, without naming any groups, condemned what it called an illegal attempt to interfere in the city’s court proceedings under the pretext of press freedom. He insisted that the prosecution of Lai was completely unrelated to the issue of press freedom.

Last week, Hong Kong lawmakers also approved an amendment to the law that would empower the city’s leader to ban overseas lawyers from handling national security cases. Critics say the changes leave defendants with even fewer options when seeking legal representation in the city’s most contentious cases.

The National Security Act criminalizes inheritance, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. This led to the arrest of several prominent democracy activists and damaged faith in the future of the international financial center.

Source: https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/hong-kong-court-dismisses-pro-democracy-publisher-jimmy-99448721