The son and overseas lawyers of Jimmy Lai have urged the United Nations to condemn the prosecution on “trumped-up” charges of the pro-democracy media tycoon, sparking criticism of them from the Hong Kong government.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher
King’s Counsel Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a member of Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai’s international legal team, speaks at the United Nations Human Rights Council session on March 14, 2023. Photo: UN Web TV screenshot.

In a statement on Wednesday night, Hong Kong authorities accused Sebastian Lai and his legal team based in the UK of scandalising the mainland-imposed national security law and the city’s judicial system.

Sebastian Lai told the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday that his 75-year-old father was handed “lengthy and disproportionate terms of imprisonment” after he “chose to stand up for his principles and for freedom of expression and association in Hong Kong.”

The founder of the now-defunct newspaper Apple Daily was jailed for a total of 20 months over illegal assemblies linked to the 2019 extradition bill protests and the banned Tiananmen vigil in 2020. He is currently serving a prison term of five years and nine months following his conviction on fraud charges last December in relation to the violation of a lease contract for the newspaper’s headquarters.

Jimmy Lai also faces three charges under the security law, punishable by life imprisonment, and one under a colonial-era law against sedition.

Speaking at the UN session, Sebastian Lai described the charges as “trumped up.” The media mogul will go on trial in late September and could spend the rest of his life behind bars if convicted.

Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai. File photo: HKFP.

“The actions taken by the Hong Kong authorities sound the death knell for the enjoyment of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. It is time for the United Nations to condemn those actions, and do everything in its power to secure my father’s release, and restore hope to Hong Kong,” he said.

King’s Counsel Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a member of an international legal team for Jimmy Lai and his son, told the UN body the sweeping security law was “breathtakingly broad” and could be applied to “anyone on the planet.”

Another lawyer for Lai, Jennifer Robinson, said the case of the media tycoon was “emblematic of a broader trend.” She pointed to former Apple Daily staff and journalists from shuttered independent media outlet Stand News, who were prosecuted – with some detained for more than a year – for national security offences.

The Hong Kong government statement rejected the remarks as an attempt to interfere with judicial proceedings, saying such statements would likely constitute the offences of criminal contempt of court or perverting the course of justice.

Flags at government headquarters fly at half-mast
Hong Kong government headquarters in Admiralty. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

It said the Basic Law guarantees fair and impartial trials.

“The HKSAR Government will never tolerate, and strongly deplores, any form of interference by anyone including the so-called ‘international legal team’ with the judicial proceedings of the HKSAR,” the statement read.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces 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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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.