State-controlled pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong have fiercely criticised the decision to let a senior British barrister represent Jimmy Lai in his high-profile national security trial, quoting one pro-China figure as saying the hearing should be shifted to the mainland if necessary.

Lai, 74, is set to be represented by King’s Counsel Timothy Owen as the pro-democracy media mogul faces four charges: two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign countries or external elements; one count of collusion with foreign forces which is punishable by life imprisonment; and one count of conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications. 

A Ta Kung Pao report criticising the court's decision to allow a UK barrister to represent media tycoon Jimmy Lai
A Ta Kung Pao report titled “Jimmy Lai’s case hiring foreign barrister, grave national security risks,” criticising the court’s decision to allow a UK barrister to represent media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Photo: Ta Kung Pao, via screenshot.

The city’s Department of Justice has made repeated objections in local courts to Owen’s involvement in the case. The Court of Final Appeal will rule on Friday on the department’s latest attempt to exclude the senior counsel on the grounds that an overseas lawyer is inappropriate in a trial about alleged foreign collusion.

Lai’s trial is due to start on December 1.

The state-controlled Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao on Thursday stepped up their attacks on the Court of Appeal’s decision to reject the department’s plea and to admit Owen.

Both papers interviewed Willy Fu, a member of the pro-Beijing Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, who said that if national security interests were harmed as a result of having an overseas barrister, the media tycoon could under the law stand trial in mainland China.

Jimmy Lai Apple Daily
Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai. File photo: HKFP.

Fu told Wen Wei Po that national security cases were “not ordinary cases.” Allowing a foreign barrister to defend a defendant in such cases might endanger national security, and was in violation of the intent of the legislation.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Holden Chow told the two news outlets the key to the debate over Owen was no longer simply the issue of nationality, but the fact that the court had “overly emphasised human rights.”

Holden Chow
Holden Chow. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Courts had over-emphasised Owen’s ability to “provide relevant legal knowledge about human rights” and ignored the importance of national security, Chow told Ta Kung Pao.

Hong Kong inherited its common law judicial system from former colonial power Britain. But under the sweeping security legislation imposed by Beijing in June 2020, defendants can be tried in mainland China under certain circumstances, although this has not yet happened in a security case.

Lai has been in custody since December 2020 and his pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper was shut down in June last year. The media tycoon has already been sentenced to prison on charges related to protests in 2019 and on other occasions.

Support HKFP  |  Policies & Ethics  |  Error/typo?  |  Contact Us  |  Newsletter  | Transparency & Annual Report | Apps

legal precedents hong kong
security law transformed hong kong
contact hkfp

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.