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Tycoon Jimmy Lai’s Hong Kong trial starts as US, UK urge his release

A rags-to-riches millionaire who made his fortune selling clothes before expanding into media, Lai will be tried without a jury and has been denied his first choice of lawyer.

HONG KONG (AFP) — Pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai went on trial in Hong Kong Monday on national security charges that could see him jailed for life, with the United States and Britain demanding his release.

Lai, 76, is accused of "collusion" with foreign forces under a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the finance hub in 2020.

He is the founder of the now-shuttered Chinese-language tabloid Apple Daily, which often criticized Beijing and supported the huge protest movement that roiled Hong Kong in 2019.

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The trial, which will continue into the new year, is being closely watched as a barometer of Hong Kong's political freedoms and judicial independence.

A rags-to-riches millionaire who made his fortune selling clothes before expanding into media, Lai will be tried without a jury and has been denied his first choice of lawyer.

Lai, who has rarely been seen publicly since 2021, appeared in court on Monday in a suit, looking thinner than in previous appearances. He smiled and waved at the gallery where his family sat.

He is a British citizen and representatives from the U.S., British, Australian and Canadian consulates were present to observe the trial.

His case has drawn widespread condemnation from the international community but Beijing has dismissed the criticism as smears and interference.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused the United States and Britain of double standards and described Lai as an "errand boy of anti-China forces."

"The United States' and United Kingdom's remarks on the case ... are in serious violation of the spirit of the rule of law, and ... they constitute blatant political maneuvering," Wang told a regular news briefing.

The European Union said Lai's trial "undermines confidence in the rule of law in Hong Kong and is detrimental to the city's attractiveness and its position as an international business hub."

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said before proceedings began he was "concerned at the politically motivated prosecution" of Lai.

"As a prominent and outspoken ... publisher, Jimmy Lai has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association," Cameron said in a statement. "I call on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution and release Jimmy Lai."

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller also called for Lai's release and said actions stifling press freedom "have undermined Hong Kong's democratic institutions."

Hong Kong leader John Lee said Monday the city had a "long tradition of rule of law" and he had "full confidence" that the courts would rule fairly and impartially.

Speaking in Beijing after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Lee warned against any interference in the court process, adding that "nobody should try to do anything to exert pressure simply because of their political motive and political gain."

‘Very unfair’

Imprisoned for more than 1,100 days, Lai has already been convicted in five other cases, including for organizing and participating in marches during the 2019 democracy protests.

Dozens of activists have been charged under the national security law but Lai is the first to contest a foreign "collusion" charge.

The trial will include a raft of other charges against him, including "conspiracy to publish seditious material."

Lai's lawyer Robert Pang argued Monday that the charge should be thrown out because Hong Kong's criminal law imposes a time limit for such prosecutions and that the government had waited too long.

"(Prosecutors) are out of time, therefore there is no jurisdiction of the court," Pang said, the point taking up all of Monday's session.

Heavy security was deployed outside the court, along with an armored vehicle and police wearing tactical gear.

However, there were some signs of dissent.

Police stopped Alexandra Wong, a democracy activist better known as "Grandma Wong," from approaching the court's entrance.

"Support Apple Daily, support Jimmy Lai!" she shouted while waving the U.K. flag before police escorted her to the other side of the road. "The trial is very unfair, very unreasonable."

Other familiar pro-democracy faces, such as former legislator Emily Lau, also came out. 

"I come here to support the defendant and to hope that Hong Kong still has an independent judiciary, the rule of law," Lau said. 

Hong Kong operates under a common law system inherited from its British colonial past.

But critics say Beijing's national security law has curtailed civil liberties, silenced dissent and eroded the judicial independence that once attracted foreign businesses to the city.

Lai's Apple Daily was forced to close in 2021 after authorities used the security law to raid it twice and freeze assets worth HK$18 million ($2.3 million).

"(Hong Kong authorities) are really weaponizing the legal system to attack people like my father, people who believe in democracy and democratic values," Lai's son Sebastien told AFP over the weekend.

by XINQI SU and HOLMES CHAN Agence France-Presse

Categories / International, Trials

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