Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai has filed an appeal against the High Court’s rejection of his attempt to challenge a national security committee decision which effectively barred a foreign lawyer from representing him, local media reported.

Lai, 75, is currently facing trial under the Beijing-imposed national security law and the colonial-era sedition law.

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

He was originally facing four charges: two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and one count of collusion with foreign forces under the security law, and one offence linked to allegedly seditious publications.

The collusion charge had since been left on court file, meaning that while the prosecution reserved the right to proceed with the charge, it could not do so without a judge’s permission.

The media tycoon sought to hire British barrister Timothy Owen to represent him in the trial. Owen’s admission sparked debate over whether overseas counsels not qualified to practise in Hong Kong should be allowed to take part in national security cases.

While the Court of First Instance granted Owen’s admission last October despite government objection, he was effectively barred from representing Lai at trial after the High Court rejected Lai’s attempt to challenge a decision made by the city’s national security committee.

High Court.
High Court. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Chief Executive John Lee invited Beijing to issue an interpretation on the sweeping security law after the Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal ruled against the government’s three attempts to bar Owen from the trial.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) decided last December that Hong Kong courts have to request certification from the chief executive on the participation of foreign lawyers in national security cases.

If courts failed to obtain certification from the chief executive, Hong Kong’s Committee for Safeguarding National Security would have to step in, the NPCSC decision stipulated.

Following the NPCSC decision, the national security committee decided in a private meeting in January that Owen’s participation in Lai’s case would harm national security, and advised the director of immigration to deny any further visa applications from Owen for the case.

Lai launched a legal bid against the national security committee and the director of immigration in April. However, Chief Judge of the High Court Jeremy Poon ruled last month that decisions made by the national security committee could not be challenged.

The media mogul filed an appeal against Poon’s decision last Thursday, local media outlets including Ming Pao and The Witness reported.

Timothy Owen
King’s Counsel Timothy Owen. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The trial against Lai, adjourned since December last year, is set to resume in September and is expected to last 83 days.

The media mogul has been remanded in custody since December 2020. He is currently serving a five-year-and-nine-month prison term for fraud case over the lease of the headquarters of Lai’s defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.

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.