Media tycoon Jimmy Lai is set to plead not guilty and stand trial in a national security case, as Hong Kong’s security chief granted three companies linked to the defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily access to their frozen funds to hire legal representatives.

Six other defendants in the case, who were former staff members of Apple Daily and its parent company Next Digital, are set to plead guilty and face sentencing. The group has been prosecuted under the Beijing-imposed national security law and the colonial-era sedition law.

Jimmy Lai. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The defendants’ pleas and the financial arrangements for the companies were revealed on Monday as part of a case management hearing, for which High Court Judge Esther Toh lifted reporting restrictions.

The 74-year-old Lai faces four charges, including two counts of conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries or external elements, one count of conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.

The six other defendants – former CEO of Next Digital, Cheung Kim-hung, Apple Daily’s former editor-in-chief Ryan Lawformer associate publisher Chan Pui-man, former executive editor-in-chief Lam Man-chung, ex-editor-in-chief of the English news section Fung Wai-kong, and ex-editorial writer Yeung Ching-kee – along with three companies – Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited, and AD Internet Limited – stood accused of the same conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign forces and conspiracy to print seditious publications charges.

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

No trial date yet

Potential trial dates were discussed during the Monday hearing, which was presided over by Toh, High Court Judges Alex Lee and Susana Maria D’Almada Remedios. No date was settled on.

High Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The representative for the three companies said that they were yet to secure a barrister for the trial, and that funds were in the process of being paid into solicitors’ accounts after the secretary for security granted licences for the companies to use the money in the frozen accounts.

Around HK$18 million worth of assets were seized after Lai, Cheung, and Lam were brought to court in June last year, said then-security chief John Lee.

Toh also asked about the availability of senior counsel Robert Pang, who is set to represent Lai, in December. A representative for Lai said that while Pang has another case to handle during December, the senior counsel would accommodate the national security trial date.

The prosecution, represented by Acting Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions (Special Duties) Anthony Chau, said that the prosecutor’s earliest availability was January next year.

Lai’s legal team predicted earlier that the trial would not take place until the end of 2023 or early 2024 in a notice filed to the court.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.