Pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai went on trial in Hong Kong Monday for national security charges that could see him jailed for life, with the United States and Britain demanding his release.
Lai, 76, stands accused of “collusion” with foreign forces under a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the finance hub in 2020.
He is the founder of the now-shuttered Chinese-language tabloid Apple Daily, which often criticised Beijing and supported the huge protest movement that roiled Hong Kong in 2019.
The trial — scheduled to be heard in open court over the next 80 working days — will be closely watched as a barometer for Hong Kong’s political freedoms and judicial independence.
A rags-to-riches millionaire who made his fortune selling clothes before expanding into media, Lai will be tried without a jury and has been previously denied his choice of lawyer.
On Monday, Lai — who has not been publicly seen since 2021 — appeared in court in a suit, and smiled and waved at the gallery where his family sat.
Lai is also a British citizen, and representatives from foreign consulates of the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada were present to observe the start of the trial.
His case has drawn widespread condemnation from the international community, but Beijing has dismissed the criticism as smears and interference.
British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said in a statement ahead of the proceedings that he was “particularly concerned at the politically motivated prosecution” of Lai.
“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,” Cameron said.
“I call on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution and release Jimmy Lai.”
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller also called for Lai’s release.
“Actions that stifle press freedom and restrict the free flow of information… have undermined Hong Kong’s democratic institutions,” Miller said.
Imprisoned for more than 1,100 days, Lai has already been convicted in five other cases, including for organising and participating in marches during the 2019 democracy protests.
Dozens of activists have been charged under the national security law.
But Lai is the first to contest a foreign “collusion” charge.
The trial will also focus on a raft of other charges against him, including “seditious publication”.
Heavy security was deployed outside the court Monday, along with an armoured vehicle and police donning tactical gear.
Local media reported that authorities planned to have 1,000 officers guarding the court round the clock during the period of the trial.
However there were some signs of dissent.
Police stopped Alexandra Wong, a well-known democracy activist better known as “Grandma Wong”, from approaching the court’s entrance.
“Support Apple Daily, support Jimmy Lai!” she shouted while waving the UK flag, before police escorted her to the other side of the road.
“The trial is very unfair, very unreasonable,” she told reporters.
Emily Lau, a former pro-democracy legislator, also came to court.
“I come here to support the defendants, and to hope that Hong Kong still has an independent judiciary, rule of law,” Lau said.
Hong Kong operates under a common law system inherited from its British colonial past.
But critics say Beijing’s national security law has curtailed the city’s civil liberties, silenced dissent and eroded the judicial independence that once attracted foreign businesses to the finance hub.
Lai’s Apple Daily was forced to close in 2021 after authorities used the security law to raid it twice and freeze assets worth HK$18 million (US$2.3 million).
Speaking to AFP over the weekend, Lai’s son Sebastien fretted over his father’s health in a maximum security prison.
“There’s no illusion that the Hong Kong’s legal system is fair anymore,” he said. “(Hong Kong authorities) are really weaponising the legal system to attack people like my father, people who believe in democracy and democratic values.” – AFP