Pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai has asked the High Court to prevent Beijing’s recent interpretation of the national security law from affecting an earlier ruling that allowed him to be represented by a UK lawyer at his upcoming trial.
The writ, which was submitted last Friday, follows Beijing’s ruling in December which stated that the city’s chief executive can decide whether to let foreign lawyers participate in national security trials.
The filing marks the latest development in the court saga sparked by Lai’s plan to hire British lawyer Tim Owen to defend him at his upcoming national security trial. Owen is a specialist in criminal, public and human rights law and has previously appeared before Hong Kong’s courts. As a lawyer not qualified to practice in the city, Owen requires permission in order to represent clients in the courts.
In November, Hong Kong’s top court, the Court of Final Appeal, rejected the government’s attempt to appeal against the decision.
Before that, the government had tried three times to block Owen’s admission, all of which failed.
Lai 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 national security law, and could be jailed for life. The Apple Daily founder is also facing one charge under a colonial-era law involving allegedly seditious publications.
Following the top court’s ruling, Hong Kong asked Beijing’s top law-making body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, to clarify whether foreign counsel who are not qualified to practise in Hong Kong are allowed to take part in national security cases in the city.
Ultimately, Beijing confirmed that the authority to make such decisions lay with the city’s chief executive and a national security committee – which is headed by the leader himself.
The writ stated that, alternatively, the High Court could obtain a certificate from the chief executive on whether the admission of Owen, and other overseas lawyers, involves national security.
Trial delayed to Sep 2023
Lai, the founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, has been in custody since December 2020.
Since 2021, the media tycoon has been handed three prison terms for illegal assemblies, as well as five years and 9 months jail for fraud related to a lease breach at the newspaper’s headquarters. The long-time critic of Beijing is the recipient of several media freedom prizes, whilst the Hong Kong government has rejected criticism, saying Lai’s fate is “nothing to do with press freedom.”
Apple Daily ceased operation in 2021 after after hundreds of police officers raided its newsroom and senior executives were arrested.
The national security trial against Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai has been adjourned until September 25, 2023. The trial began in December, but was adjourned on its first day.