Hong Kong has condemned remarks made by overseas groups as slander, after they called for the release of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai on his 1,000th day in custody.

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

In a statement published on Tuesday night, the government said it “strongly condemned and opposed the misleading and slanderous remarks by various overseas organisations and media against the law enforcement actions and legal proceedings in respect of the cases involving [Jimmy] Lai Chee-ying.”

It added that the comments constituted “blatant political interference” in Hong Kong’s internal affairs and independent judiciary.

“The suggestion that persons or organisations with certain backgrounds should be immune from legal sanctions for their illegal acts and activities is tantamount to granting such persons or organisations privileges to break the law and is totally contrary to the spirit of the rule of law,” a government spokesperson said.

The statement came as overseas groups urged for the release of Lai, who will have been detained for three years when his high-profile national security trial is expected to get underway in December.

The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, a group based in Washington DC, published a letter addressed to US President Joe Biden calling on him to urge the Hong Kong government to “immediately and unconditionally release” Lai.

USA US president Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden on July 15, 2022. Photo: The White House, via Flickr.

The letter was co-signed by over 60 overseas groups that advocate for democracy in Hong Kong, most of them based in the US and the UK.

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.

1,000 days in custody

Lai, the founder of defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, was first arrested under the national security law on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces in early August 2020, a little over a month after the sweeping legislation came into force on June 30 that year. He was also suspected of committing fraud. He was formally charged with both in December 2020 and has been detained since.

His fraud case, relating to a lease violation at the Apple Daily headquarters, went to trial last May. He was found guilty last December and jailed for five years and nine months.

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

Lai is still awaiting his national security trial, which was meant to start last December but was adjourned amid a saga over whether he would be allowed to hire Timothy Owen, a UK-based lawyer, to represent him.

The government tried multiple times to block the admission of Owen by launching legal challenges in court. Eventually, Hong Kong asked Beijing to intervene and clarify if foreign counsels not qualified to practice locally can take part in national security cases.

China’s top law-making body then issued its first interpretation of the national security law, stating that the Hong Kong chief executive and Committee for Safeguarding National Security had the power to decide on the matter.

Following another adjournment in August, Lai’s national security trial is now expected to begin in December, when one of the handpicked judges is expected to have finished presiding over another landmark national security case involving 47 democrats.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.