The national security trial for Jimmy Lai, the founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, will proceed without a jury, local media has reported.

Lai – along with three companies Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited, and AD Internet Limited – will appear in court on Monday for a hearing ahead of the trial at High Court. The hearing will be presided over by national security judges Esther Toh, Susana Maria D’Almada Remedios and Alex Lee, according to the Judiciary website.

Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai. File photo: Studio Incendo.

Media outlets including Ming Pao and HK01 reported on Wednesday that the High Court trial will not be heard by a jury.

The 74-year-old and the three companies stand accused of conspiring to commit collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security, and to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.

Trial by jury is a key feature of Hong Kong’s common law legal system. However, the national security law, imposed by Beijing in June 2020, allow cases under the legislation to be tried at the High Court by a panel of designated judges instead of a jury. The practice was flagged by a UN human rights committee last month as “very concerning.”

In the only national security case to be tried at the High Court without a jury thus far, activist Tong Ying-kit was sentenced to nine years in jail. He was also the first person to be convicted under the national security law.

The Judiciary told HKFP it would not comment on individual cases.

Since being denied bail in December 2020, Lai has been sentenced to 20 months in jail over protest-related cases, including over the 2020 banned Tiananmen vigil.

Apple Dily archive
An online archive of past Apple Daily articles. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Apple Daily, the newspaper he founded in 1995, was known for its pro-democracy stance. It folded last June after a police raid and the arrest of Lai and other top executives.

The maximum sentence for national security charges is life imprisonment, and two years in prison for a first sedition offence.

‘The most appropriate arrangement’

Reports that Lai’s case will proceed without a jury come less than a day after it emerged that authorities had ordered a non-jury trial for the 47 democrats national security case – in which dozens of activists have been charged with conspiracy to subversion over their involvement in a primary election in 2020.

Secretary for Justice Paul Lam cited the “involvement of foreign elements” in the case, the “personal safety of jurors and their family members” and a “risk of perverting the course of justice if the trial is conducted with a jury” in a letter seen by HKFP.

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Chief Secretary Eric Chan defended the order on Wednesday. He said he could not really comment because proceedings were ongoing, but that a non-jury trial for the high-profile case was “the most appropriate arrangement.”

No trial date has been set for Lai’s case yet. His legal team expected that it was “unlikely” the case would take place until the end of 2023 or early 2024 given its complexity, according to a notice filed last week.

Beijing inserted the national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution over two years ago following months of pro-democracy protests and unrests.

The security law criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts. While civil society groups have criticised the legislation, saying it has been used to crack down on political movements, authorities maintain it has restored stability to the city.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.