Hong Kong’s secretary for justice will on Tuesday seek to adjourn a national security trial involving pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai – two days before it was slated to begin – while awaiting Beijing’s proposed interpretation of the city’s national security law.

Chief Executive John Lee met the press on November 29, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Chief Executive John Lee confirmed at a weekly press briefing before the Executive Council meeting that justice chief Paul Lam will ask the court to postpone Lai’s case, after he had submitted a report to Beijing over allowing a non-locally registered British barrister to defend Lai.

In response to an HKFP enquiry, the DOJ on Tuesday afternoon said it had written to the Court of First Instance to apply for the adjournment of Lai’s trial but “would not comment on the details of ongoing proceedings.”

On Monday, the Court of Final Appeal dismissed an appeal bid by the Department of Justice, which tried to block an ad-hoc admission of King’s counsel Timothy Owen to represent Lai in the high-profile national security trial.

King’s Counsel Timothy Owen leaving the Court of Final Appeal in Central on November 25, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Hours later, Lee announced that he would invite the central authorities to offer an interpretation of the Beijing-imposed security law on the matter as part of a wider report on the national security situation in Hong Kong.

Shortly before midnight, the government announced that Lee had submitted the report and had asked for a clarification of the question: “Based on the legislative intent and objectives of the National Security Law, can an overseas solicitor or barrister who is not qualified to practise generally in Hong Kong participate by any means in the handling of work in cases concerning offence endangering national security?”

‘Utmost attention’

On Tuesday, Lee said the central government had received the report.

“The central government pays utmost attention to this matter,” he said.

Chief Executive John Lee met the press on November 29, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

With the request for interpretation and a subsequent trial adjournment application coming just days before the scheduled trial date, Lee was asked whether it was unfair to Lai. Lee sidestepped that question, saying he had requested the central authorities to “deal with it as soon as possible.”

He also did not give an estimation of how long the process might take, but said if the central government is to interpret the national security law, “it would be best” to proceed with Lai’s case with the latest interpretation.

Interpretation of law

Lee said on Monday that the proposal would suggest the standing committee to issue an interpretation in accordance with Article 65 of the security legislation.

Article 65 of the national security law stipulates that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) has the power of interpretation of the legislation.

Legislative interpretations are not unique to the sweeping security law.

According to Article 158 of the Basic Law, the NPCSC has the power of interpretation of the city’s mini-constitution.

Hong Kong has seen five instances of legislative interpretation since the handover. The most recent, in 2016, effectively banned six pro-democracy lawmakers-elect from the Legislative Council.

High-profile trial

Lai faces a total of four charges: two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and one count of collusion with foreign forces under the national security law, and one count of conspiracy over allegedly seditious materials under the colonial-era sedition law.

Jimmy Lai. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The Apple Daily founder has been remanded in custody since December 2020. Lai has since been sentenced to prison over other protest-related charges.

People hold placards to show support for Apple Daily Hong Kong on its last day of operation. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Three companies linked to the defunct pro-democracy tabloid will also stand trial. Six other defendants in the case, who were former employees of Apple Daily or its parent company Next Digital, pleaded guilty, and will be sentenced after the trial.

Apple Daily is the first news outlet to be charged under the Beijing-imposed national security law. The paper folded in June last year following the arrests of its writers and employees.

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Almond Li

Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.