The Hong Kong publisher’s security trial has been further delayed

HONG KONG — The national security trial of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy publisher was postponed on Tuesday until next September as the city awaits a ruling from Beijing that could effectively prevent it from hiring a British defense lawyer.

Jimmy Lai, who was arrested in August 2020 during the crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy movement, is facing charges of endangering national security. The 75-year-old founder of the now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily could face up to life in prison if convicted under Beijing’s national security law.

His high-profile trial, originally scheduled to begin on December 1, was postponed earlier this month after Hong Kong leader John Lee asked China’s top legislature to decide whether foreign lawyers who do not normally practice in Hong Kong could be admitted. involved in national security matters.

Lee filed the request hours after the city’s Supreme Court approved Lai’s plan to hire Timothy Owen, a veteran human rights lawyer.

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If Beijing intervenes, it would be the sixth time the communist government has intervened despite vowing to respect Hong Kong’s judicial independence and civil liberties for at least 50 years after China took over from Britain in 1997.

Members of China’s top legislative body are expected to meet in late December. However, the interpretation of the law was not on the agenda of the meeting, which was reported by China’s official Xinhua news agency last Friday. Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the panel said on Monday that at some previous events, new agendas were added only at the meeting. However, Tam Yiu-chung could not say how the committee would handle Lee’s request.

Judge Esther Toh set the trial to start on September 25, 2023, taking into account the latest developments and taking into account the schedules of the court and lawyers. It is expected to end on November 21.

Owen left Hong Kong after the immigration office refused to extend his visa while authorities were still waiting for a decision from Beijing, Lai’s lawyer said.

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Lai is accused of conspiring with others to engage in hostile activities against Hong Kong or China, such as demanding sanctions. 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.

On Saturday, he was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison for fraud after serving 20 months for his role in the unauthorized rallies.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the latest ruling on Sunday on Twitter and called on Chinese authorities to respect Hong Kong’s freedom of expression, including freedom of the press.

In response, the Hong Kong government said the statement was about political interference in the city’s justice system, adding that the fraud case had nothing to do with freedom of the press or freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, former Stand News editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen, who was charged with conspiracy to publish seditious material, was granted bail in a separate court hearing on Tuesday after being detained for almost a year. The now-closed Stand News was one of the last newspapers in the city to openly criticize the government after Apple Daily closed.

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Chung and his former colleague, Patrick Lam, are charged under a colonial-era sedition law increasingly used to silence critical voices in the city. Lam was granted bail last month.

Hong Kong fell more than 60 places to 148th in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index published in May. The global media monitoring organization referred to the closure of the two offices in its assessment.