Jimmy Lai pleads not guilty to national security, sedition charges

Media tycoon is the most prominent individual to face trial under the law imposed by China in 2020.

Armed police and an armoured vehicle outside the court where the Jimmy Lai trial is taking place
Armed police have been deployed for the trial [Billy HC Kwok/AP Photo]

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has pleaded not guilty to all charges in his closely-watched trial under the territory’s national security law that could see him jailed for life.

Lai, 76, has been in prison since December 2020 and faces two counts of “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces” under the China-imposed security law as well as “conspiracy to publish seditious publications” under a colonial-era sedition law.

His trial was delayed by a year – after the Hong Kong government questioned his choice of lawyer – seeking Beijing’s intervention – and finally got under way in December.

The founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper is one of Beijing’s most vocal critics and has already been convicted on lesser charges related to the management of the media firm and his involvement in a vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

“Not guilty,” Lai responded in English as each of the three charges was read out.

Wearing a white shirt and a navy blue jacket, Lai was surrounded by three prison guards in the defendant’s dock.

He wore headphones to help him hear the trial more clearly, according to his lawyer.

Other defendants in the case include three Apple Daily companies that have been taken over by the Hong Kong government, six former executives of the newspaper and two young activists related to an advocacy group called Stand With Hong Kong Fight For Freedom (SWHK).

Journalists try to get a shot as the prison van carrying Jimmy Lai enters the court complex. They are standing on ladders and holding their cameras high. The van is black with a yellow stripe along the side.
Journalists try to get a shot of Jimmy Lai as the prison van arrives at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts [Billy HC Kwok/AP Photo]

Beijing imposed the broadly-worded national security law in June 2020, saying it was necessary to restore stability following the mass protests the previous year, which began amid popular opposition to a plan for an extradition bill with the mainland.

Amnesty has said the law has “decimated” Hong Kong’s freedoms and many pro-democracy politicians and activists have left the territory.

The United States and the United Kingdom have called for Lai’s immediate release and raised concerns about whether he will receive a fair trial. Lai is also a UK citizen.

“This case is about a radical political figure… who conspired with others to bring into hatred and stir up opposition to the government of ([Hong Kong] and the central authorities and to collude with foreign countries or external elements to endanger national security,” lead prosecutor Anthony Chau told the court on Tuesday.

Chau labelled Lai “the mastermind” who used his media business “as a platform to pursue his political agenda… and orchestrated a conspiracy with the so-called democracy and freedom advocacy group Stand with Hong Kong Fight for Freedom”.

The prosecution cited 161 publications of Apple Daily between April 2019 and the newspaper’s last day in June 2021 as “examples of seditious publications… with a view to polluting the minds of the impressionable ones”.

Lai was also accused of providing instructions and financial support for SWHK to lobby foreign countries for sanctions, including the US, UK, Australia, Japan and Portugal.

The trial is being heard by three specially-selected security law judges and there is no jury.

It is scheduled to continue for 80 days until March next year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies