Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai is expected to face an 83-day national security trial, a court has heard.

The media tycoon did not appear in court on Tuesday. He was represented by Senior Counsel Robert Pang in front of judges Esther Toh, Susana D’Almada Remedios, and Alex Lee at the Court of First Instance.

Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai being transferred onto a Correctional Services vehicle on February 1, 2021. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Lai, 75, who has been remanded in custody since December 2020, originally faced a total of four charges under the Beijing-imposed national security law and the colonial-era sedition law.

The Apple Daily founder was accused of two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and one count of collusion with foreign forces. He was also charged under the sedition law over allegedly seditious publications.

The collusion charge had since been left on court file, meaning that while the prosecution can only proceed with the charge with a judge’s permission.

Lai was also sentenced to five years and nine months in prison for fraud over a lease violation at the headquarters of defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.

Last September, the trial against Lai was estimated to take 30 working days. Prosecutor Anthony Chau said on Tuesday that 65 days would be needed to deal with the evidence of the case, including calling witnesses. Including the time needed to draft and present closing statements, the court was told that the trial would take 83 days.

High Court
High Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

There are expected to be at least 20 witnesses, including two expert witnesses who would also be summoned to give evidence on instant messaging applications, and the legal effect of foreign sanctions.

Senior Counsel Robert Pang, representing Lai, also requested a pre-trial review, which will take place on August 18. He also asked the prosecution to disclose whether they would be submitting any new evidence.

“If there is anything more, [Chau] should say so now,” said Pang.

The trial against the media tycoon was adjourned on its first day last December, as the court was awaiting a decision from Beijing on whether overseas lawyers not qualified to practise in Hong Kong were allowed to take part in the city’s national security cases.

King’s Counsel Timothy Owen has since been barred from representing Lai in the trial. Earlier this month, the High Court rejected the media tycoon’s attempt to challenge decisions from the national security committee and the director of immigration.

Apple Daily
Apple Daily headquarters. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The national security committee decided in a private meeting that Owen’s participation in the trial would harm national security and advised the director of immigration to reject any future visa applications from the barrister for the case.

While the trial is scheduled to resume on September 25 at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building, the judges said on Tuesday that it also depended on the progress of the 47 democrats case.

Lee, Chau and defence barrister Steven Kwan are also involved in the high-profile national security proceedings, in which 16 democrats who pleaded not guilty are on trial. If it cannot be completed as scheduled, the trial against Lai could be delayed.

The 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.