Hong Kong pro-democracy advocate and media tycoon Jimmy Lai went on trial Monday under Beijing’s stringent national security law, marking the most high-profile case yet under the controversial legislation.
High Stakes Trial Seen as Litmus Test for Hong Kong’s Judicial Independence
Lai faces a potential life sentence if convicted of “collusion with foreign forces” for his alleged role backing the city’s democracy movement and calling for international sanctions. His case is seen as a crucial test of whether Hong Kong can maintain judicial independence under increasing pressure from Beijing.
As Lai arrived at court, a small crowd of his supporters chanted slogans and held signs calling for his release. Police maintained a heavy presence, with 1,000 officers deployed around the building.
“This is a show trial – the outcome has been decided already,” said Mark Simon, a close aide to Lai. Foreign governments including the UK and US have also voiced concern, calling the trial a “sham judicial process” and urging Lai’s immediate release.
The trial has garnered worldwide attention as one of the most high-stakes cases under the security law since its enactment in 2020. The legislation criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion and has been used to arrest over 200 people.
|Pro-democracy media tycoon, founder of Apple Daily newspaper
|Longtime senior executive at Lai’s Next Digital media company
Critics say the broadly-defined offenses can be used to threaten dissidents and curtail free speech. Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper was forced to shut down last year after authorities froze its assets during an ongoing national security investigation.
If convicted, the 74-year-old could join over 120 people already behind bars under the law – many denied bail before trial.
“Jimmy Lai’s trial this week only shows that Chinese and Hong Kong authorities are intent on eliminating the only remaining pockets of political diversity and dissent in the city,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Supporters Brave Cold Temperatures As Proceedings Get Underway
Since Lai’s arrest in August 2020, pro-democracy activists have turned up at each of his court appearances in a show of solidarity.
On Monday, dozens gathered outside in near-freezing temperatures, holding signs saying “Free Lai Jimmy” and “No political imprisonment.” Police set up barriers to prevent demonstrations getting too close to the building.
“Grandma Wong” – prominent activist Alexandra Wong in her 60s – traveled across Hong Kong to protest outside the court.
“This shows we have not given up,” she told AFP.
Other veteran activists Leung Kwok-hung and Cyd Ho also made appearances.
Ho said she wanted to tell Lai to “hang in there” and that “we are with you.”
Foreign Leaders Speak Out; Lai Pleads Not Guilty as Proceedings Start
The trial has sparked international condemnation, with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both speaking out.
Former UK leader David Cameron renewed his call for Lai’s release on Monday, saying the case “threatens Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms and seriously undermines Hong Kong’s international reputation.”
As the first day of hearings commenced, Lai pleaded not guilty to charges alleging he colluded with foreign forces by calling for overseas sanctions against Hong Kong and China.
Prosecutors said they would focus on photos, meetings, interviews with foreign politicians, payments to lobbyists abroad, and over 200 articles published in the now-defunct Apple Daily.
Lai also faces three charges of fraud relating to office space occupied by the paper. The prosecution aims to prove the offices were used for purposes not permitted by the lease.
What’s Next As Landmark Case Plays Out?
The trial is expected to last around three months, with hearings taking place three days per week. Lai is among the last prominent opposition voices still in the city amid Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on dissent.
Over recent years, authorities have carried out mass arrests of pro-democracy activists while revamping Hong Kong’s legislature, media and education sectors to align more closely with China.
Critics say the national security law – which toppled the “one country, two systems” model promising Hong Kong freedoms unavailable in mainland China – has crippled political opposition and civil society.
Supporters argue it has restored stability, while Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee says upholding the security law is a priority for his government.
As Lai’s closely-watched trial continues playing out, the implications could be far-reaching. If convicted, the business tycoon could potentially spend the rest of his life behind bars. The eventual verdict will also indicate whether Hong Kong’s courts still have true independence from Beijing in national security cases.
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