The closely watched national security trial of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been adjourned on its scheduled starting date on Thursday until December 13 as Hong Kong waits for Beijing to “clarify” whether overseas lawyers are allowed to appear in such cases.

Lai, who stands accused of four offences and has asked to be represented by British barrister Timothy Owen despite Hong Kong government objections, appeared before three handpicked national security judges on Thursday. A defence lawyer told the court the Immigration Department had withheld a visa extension for Owen.

Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai. File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Judges Esther Toh, Susanna Remedios, and Alex Lee approved an application from the prosecution led by Anthony Chau to adjourn the trial to December 13. The defence did not object.

Chau said an adjournment was needed as the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress decides whether to issue a legislative interpretation on the question of whether foreign lawyers who are not qualified to practise regularly in Hong Kong are allowed to take part in national security cases in any form.

The request for the interpretation came from Chief Executive John Lee on Monday, hours after the Court of Final Appeal upheld the decision to allow King’s Counsel Timothy Owen to represent Lai.

The interpretation would not only determine whether overseas counsel are allowed to represent national security defendants in courts, it may also ban foreign lawyers from giving advice to clients, said Chau.

The prosecutor said he would provide a further timetable on December 13, when the trial could be expected to resume after the potential interpretation was released.

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

Owen, who arrived in Hong Kong in mid-November, did not appear in court on Thursday. The media tycoon was represented by Senior Counsel Robert Pang instead.

Pang revealed in court that the Immigration Department had “withheld” as of Wednesday the UK barrister’s application for a work visa extension, for what he called “reasons best known to” the department.

The senior counsel also said that he wished to proceed at a later date with an application to halt the trial as there might be new arguments in light of the recent developments.

“At 4 p.m. on Monday we were delighted that the court would have the assistance of Owen…that delight turned into puzzlement a couple of hours later,” said Pang.

Jimmy Lai trial police High Court
A corrections vehicle enters the High Court on December 1, 2022, when media mogul Jimmy Lai’s trial under the national security law is set to begin. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Lai’s team said in November that they would file an application for stay of proceedings, on grounds including the fact that the trial would be presided over by a panel of three judges instead of a jury.

The media tycoon, who has been remanded for nearly two years since December 2020, appeared in court in a grey suit with a buzz cut.

The 74-year-old is accused of two counts of conspiracy to collude with external forces and one count of collusion with external forces under the Beijing-imposed national security law. He faces a potential maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Lai is also charged over allegedly seditious publications under a colonial-era sedition law.

Three companies linked to his defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily are also on trial. Six other defendants in the case – former staff members of Apple Daily or its parent company Next Digital – pleaded guilty and will be sentenced after the trial.

The case has attracted widespread local and international attention, with Lai being one of China’s fiercest critics.

Jimmy Lai trial High Court
Members of the public line up at the High Court on December 1, 2022 for admission tickets to the trial hearing of media mogul Jimmy Lai’s trial under the national security law. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Over 50 people were queuing for admission to the public gallery early Thursday despite chilly temperatures.

Jimmy Lai trial police High Court
Police on standby outside the High Court on December 1, 2022, when media mogul Jimmy Lai’s trial under the national security law is set to begin. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

There was also a heavy police deployment around the High Court, with armed officers and a sniffer dog patrolling the area.

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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.