The Hong Kong government has said it “strongly opposes interference” from the UK government, after a team of lawyers working for jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai reportedly met with a minister from the UK foreign office.

The statement, released on Tuesday night, came after Lai’s UK counsels reportedly requested a meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ahead of a high-profile national security case against the founder of defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.

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

Lai, a British national, has been accused of two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and one count of collusion with foreign forces under the Beijing-imposed security legislation. He also faces one charge under the colonial-era sedition law over allegedly seditious publications.

The 75-year-old has been detained since December 2020. Last month, he was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison over violating the terms of lease for Apple Daily’s headquarters. He was previously handed a 20-month jail term for several protest-related charges.

The BBC reported on Tuesday that Lai’s lawyers in the UK had asked Sunak for “an urgent meeting” ahead of the upcoming national security trial, which has been adjourned to September 25 this year.

According to a letter seen by the BBC, Lai’s team said they wanted to discuss “potential ways to secure” their client’s release.

Reuters reported later on Tuesday that Sunak’s spokesperson said Lai’s team had met with Minister for Asia Anne-Marie Trevelyan, adding, “the foreign office… has provided support for Jimmy Lai for some time.”

UK Minster of State (Indo-Pacific) Anne-Marie Trevelyan
UK Minster of State (Indo-Pacific) Anne-Marie Trevelyan. Photo: UK Parliament (CC BY 3.0).

In response, the Hong Kong administration said that defendants charged with criminal offences would have fair trials and that the city’s courts “shall exercise judicial power independently, free from any interference.” The government also said that cases “will never be handled any differently owning to the profession, political beliefs or background of the persons involved.”

“The HKSAR Government opposes and condemns these acts of the aforementioned purported ‘international legal team’ and the UK Government which attempted to undermine the rule of law of Hong Kong and interfere with the independent exercise of judicial power in Hong Kong,” the statement read.

“The HKSAR Government strongly urges the relevant parties to respect the spirit of the rule of law and stop interfering with the internal affairs of the HKSAR.”

Beijing intervention on admission of UK lawyer

Lai’s trial, which began on December 1, was adjourned on its first day as the court awaited a possible ruling from Beijing’s top decision-making body on whether a UK barrister could represent the media tycoon in the city.

Later that month, the trial was adjourned further until late September.

King’s Counsel Timothy Owen was admitted by Hong Kong’s High Court in October last year, but the barrister’s admission was opposed by the city’s secretary for justice on four occasions, all of which were dismissed either by the High Court or the Court of Final Appeal.

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

Following the top court’s ruling against the justice secretary in November, Chief Executive John Lee invited Beijing to intervene and decide whether foreign counsels not qualified to practise in Hong Kong were allowed to take part in national security cases in any form.

Timeline of debate over admission of Timothy Owen (Click to expand):

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) passed an legislative interpretation on the national security law in late-December, which confirmed that the chief executive and the Hong Kong’s Committee for Safeguarding National Security held the power to decide on the matter.

See also: Explainer – Beijing’s first interpretation of Hong Kong’s national security law

Since Beijing’s decision, the chief executive has yet to make any announcement on whether Owen could represent the media tycoon, but Secretary for Justice Paul Lam said that the committee would hold a meeting to discuss possible solutions.

The national security law, enacted in June 2020, also criminalised subversion, secession, and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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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.