The Hong Kong Department of Justice (DoJ) has said it is “appalled” by overseas government officials who are demanding the release of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is facing trial under the Beijing-enacted national security law.
In a statement issued on Saturday night, the DoJ said, without naming Lai and any foreign officials, that no one should interfere with its independent prosecutorial decisions that were based on admissible evidence and applicable laws.
The Apple Daily owner, already in custody pending trial over alleged fraud, was transported to court in chains for allegedly colluding with foreign forces on Saturday. It is an offence punishable by life imprisonment under the sweeping security legislation imposed by Beijing on the semi-autonomous region on June 30.
The controversial law – described as “draconian” by critics – also bans secession, subversion and terrorist acts.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday that charges against Lai should be dropped and the media mogul should be released immediately: “Hong Kong’s national security law makes a mockery of justice. Jimmy Lai’s only ‘crime’ is speaking the truth about the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism and fear of freedom,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter.
Mike Pence, vice-president of the US, also urged for Lai to be freed, saying the 73-year-old was a “hero” for his “stand for democracy and the rights that were promised to the people of Hong Kong.”
“Today’s charges against Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong are an affront to freedom loving people around everywhere,” Pence tweeted on Saturday.
The DoJ said calls for withdrawing the charge and setting the defendant free not only disrespected the city’s judicial system and undermined its rule of law, but they also amounted to attempts to “meddle” in China’s internal affairs.
“We are appalled by such open demands for withdrawal of charge and immediate release of the defendant by senior officials in another jurisdiction,” the DoJ said.
Twitter & launch of English news
On Saturday, Lai appeared in court for his foreign collusion charge in front of Chief Magistrate Victor So, one of the judges handpicked by Chief Executive Carrie Lam to hear national security cases.
According to local media citing sources, Lai was accused of using multiple efforts to invite foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China. The prosecution pointed to Lai’s activity on Twitter, such as his tweets about the national security law, as well as articles he published in his pro-democracy tabloid.
Sources told local media that the prosecution said Lai has over 120,000 followers, including Chinese dissidents Wang Dan and Wu’er Kaixi who led the Tiananmen student protests in 1989. They also cited Lai’s 53 following, such as Taiwan President Tsai ing-wen, US State Secretary Pompeo and Benedict Rogers, the co-founder of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
Lai’s meeting with Pompeo last July was included in the case summary, local media said, in which he said Washington could slap sanctions on the leaders of Hong Kong and China who “suppressed” the anti-extradition bill movement.
The prosecutors mentioned Lai’s pro-democracy tabloid launched an English edition in June, and media tycoon started a segment called “Live Chat with Jimmy Lai” that was also aired on the newspaper’s social media accounts.
The case summary also referred to Lai’s talk about sanctions and foreign influence in his interviews with international media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times and BBC News.
Chief Magistrate So refused to extend bail to Lai, he will remain in custody until his next court appearance on April 16.