The national security trial of jailed Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai is due to begin on Monday, more than a year after it was originally scheduled to start, and three years since he was first imprisoned.
The 76-year-old, who is also a British citizen, stands accused of conspiring to collude with foreign forces and publish seditious material.
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The most prominent figure to be charged under the security law that Beijing imposed on the territory in June 2020, Lai faces spending the rest of his life in jail. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts.
His son, Sebastien, who has been travelling the world to draw attention to his father’s case, told Al Jazeera he was trying to maintain some optimism.
“Obviously, this is a show trial,” he said in an interview in September. “They’re basically punishing [him] for standing up for the freedoms that the Hong Kong region has, and that were also promised during the handover. That’s all it is, really, and they’re using a national security law, and the national security law isn’t retroactive. So if we look at it even just on that very level, on their word, then none of these guys should be in jail.”
Earlier this week, Sebastien met recently-appointed United Kingdom Foreign Minister David Cameron, a former prime minister who once championed closer ties with Beijing under the so-called “golden era”.
Cameron promised the UK would “continue to stand by Jimmy Lai and the people of HK,” according to a post from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on the social media platform, X.
Afterwards, Sebastien said he hoped the UK would soon “add its voice” to US and European Union calls for his father’s immediate release.
Rags to riches
Before Lai was arrested at his home in August 2020 – and taken by police on a raid of his newspaper offices that was livestreamed by its journalists – he was known as much for his entrepreneurial success as he was for his criticism of Beijing’s Communist Party – a rarity among Hong Kong’s wealthy.
Born Lai Chee-ying in China in December 1947, he arrived in Hong Kong, then a British colony, after stowing away in a fishing boat. He was just 12 years old.
Finding work in a clothing factory, Lai gradually climbed the ranks, eventually setting up his own Giordano brand selling T-shirts, chinos and everyday basics in a Hong Kong version of US retailer Gap that became hugely popular across the region.
In the 1990s, as Britain prepared for 1997 and the handover of Hong Kong to China, Lai used the money he made from the sale of Giordano to focus on the media, founding Next Media, publisher of the popular tabloid Apple Daily and other Chinese-language outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In Hong Kong’s then free-wheeling media landscape, the papers attracted hundreds of thousands of readers for their mix of critical reporting on China and tantalising gossip, making the most of the ‘one country, two systems’ framework that was supposed to ensure Hong Kong maintained the rights and freedoms it had long enjoyed but that were unheard of on the mainland.
By 2008, Forbes estimated his wealth at some $1.2bn and said he was “thriving by promoting free speech and democracy”.
Lai and Apple Daily found themselves under fire in the wake of the mass demonstrations in 2019 that began over concerns about a planned extradition bill with mainland China and evolved into calls for greater democracy. The protests came amid growing unease at Beijing’s gradual tightening of control over political life despite the promises made in 1997.
Lai has been jailed since December 2020, first in pre-trial detention and later as a result of short prison sentences for a series of separate charges related to the management of Apple Daily and his involvement in a vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
After 26 years, the final edition of the Apple Daily rolled off the presses in June 2021.
After two police raids, with Lai and Next Media’s top executives under arrest, and a freeze imposed on its bank accounts, the company said the decision reflected “employee safety and manpower considerations”.
After being denied bail soon after his initial arrest, Lai used his high-profile status to challenge the security law.
He initially planned to hire a British lawyer, Timothy Owen, to defend him in a decision that secured the backing of Hong Kong’s highest court, which dismissed the government’s bid to block Owen’s appointment and impose a “blanket ban” on foreign lawyers working on national security cases.
The ruling prompted Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, a former security minister, to ask Beijing to intervene, arguing a foreign lawyer might divulge state secrets or be compromised by a foreign government.
Denied his choice of counsel, Lai will face a panel of three handpicked judges and, unlike Hong Kong’s common law criminal justice system, there will be no jury.
“Jimmy Lai has already spent three years in prison for his journalism and his peaceful pro-democracy activities,” Caoilfhionn Gallagher of London’s Doughty Street Chambers, which is representing the Lai family in international law issues. “He is now being prosecuted for illegitimate reasons, under an unfair law and in a broken legal system.”
The trial is scheduled to continue for 80 days until March next year.
“On the one hand, there will be an attempt from the Hong Kong authorities to show that they take their court trial process seriously,” Kevin Yam, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, told Al Jazeera. On the other hand, Lai’s defence team appears to be “seeking to use the long and painful court process to try and show the absurdity of the allegations against him,” he added.
Maya Wang, associate director at the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said the proceedings will provide an insight into the workings of the security law.
“I think in the end, Jimmy Lai will be imprisoned. The question is for how long,” Wang told Al Jazeera. “I would pay attention to how the prosecution characterises his collusion charge because it can carry up to life imprisonment depending on the severity.”
“It’s also very important to note that given Jimmy’s very advanced age, even just a short sentence effectively means life imprisonment for him,” she said.
Hong Kong’s national security police have arrested 264 people as of August and charged 148 under the national security law or the recently revived colonial offence of sedition, according to research by fellow Eric Lai and others at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.
Beyond Lai, Hong Kong’s other national security trials include the ongoing mega trial of 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists – for organising a pre-selection process to choose their candidates for elections that were later postponed – and the sedition trial of journalists at the now defunct Stand News, but many of those charged under the law include people who took part in the 2019 protests.