A Hong Kong court on Tuesday again postponed the national security trial of Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai as Beijing has yet to decide whether a foreign lawyer can represent him.
Lai, who turned 75 last Thursday, will have to wait another nine months for the trial to begin after High Court Judge Esther Toh set a new trial date, with proceedings scheduled for September.
Lai has been in custody since December 2020 on two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign countries and one count of collusion with foreign forces.
Lai, who pleaded not guilty in August, faces life in prison if convicted.
The trial, initially scheduled to begin December 1, was delayed earlier this month. Once underway, it will be overseen by three handpicked national security judges with no jury.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee has asked Beijing to interpret a ban on foreign counsel in national security cases, with British lawyer Tim Owen, who was set to represent Lai, having his visa withheld.
China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) will decide whether Lai can be represented by Owen, a veteran human rights attorney. Hong Kong’s High Court previously approved the application to admit Owen for the case, and the Court of Final Appeal ruled against the Department of Justice’s three attempts to block Owen from defending Lai.
Lai is the owner of Next Digital, the largest listed media company in Hong Kong, which used to publish the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper. The pro-democracy newspaper was forced to close last year when Lai, along with his top executives, editors, and journalists were arrested over alleged violations of Hong Kong’s Beijing-imposed National Security Law (NSL).
Six of those former executives pleaded guilty to collusion charges under the NSL in late November.
Law Professor Alvin Y.H. Cheung of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said Hong Kong authorities are doing everything possible to keep Lai locked up amid multiple prison sentences and delays to his trials.
“Quite clearly the point is to keep him in indefinite pre-trial detention. And the way to do that is to keep stringing the trials along and to keep adding new charges that require additional trials. It’s quite obvious what is going on,” Cheung told VOA.
Since Lai has been detained, he has been sentenced to prison on four other occasions for criminal offenses related to his activism, including unlawful assembly during the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019. He faces three charges under the NSL.
Cheung, who previously practiced as a barrister in Hong Kong, has publicly stated that Lai’s decision to hire a foreign lawyer has forced the Hong Kong government to seek Beijing’s help.
“If you want a robust, no-holds-barred defense, hire an out-of-towner — someone who won’t worry about what bridges he burns,” Cheung recently wrote, charging that Hong Kong and Beijing officials are “terrified” of a foreign lawyer eventually revealing how national security trials are conducted.
The Hong Kong Free Press recently reported that Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole NPCSC delegate, said barring foreign lawyers from national security cases matches “the legislative spirit and logic of the national security," and that NSL defendants can be extradited to the mainland for trial if government officials in Beijing deem it "necessary."
Lai was sentenced on Saturday to five years and nine months in prison for fraud, convicted of violating a lease contract for the headquarters of the liberal-leaning newspaper he used to run.
Cheung and other Lai supporters have called the fraud charges politically motivated.
Stanley Chan, the judge who handed down Lai’s sentence, has called the case “a simple case of fraud” that is not connected to politics or press freedom.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher, leader of Lai’s international legal team, urged the British government to do more for Lai, who is a British citizen.
“We ask the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to treat this case with the urgency it deserves and to speak out in support of its citizen,” Gallagher wrote on Twitter.
Western governments including the United States have expressed concern about Lai's plight and denounced what they call a broader deterioration in protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms under the NSL.
State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the verdict via Twitter.
Some information is from Reuters.