Hong Kong judge questions charges that Jimmy Lai plotted with foreign forces

Judge Alex Lee released the pro-democracy magnate because he expressed opinions and did not make any requests to foreign governments. The ruling is an indirect blow against Beijing's meddling, and provides Lai’s lawyers with a defensive strategy. Hong Kong lawyers urge the local government to respond to pressure from Chinese state media.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – A High Court judge ruled that Jimmy Lai expressed opinions and did not make any requests to foreign governments. He also noted that his bail conditions were sufficient to believe that he would not violate the terms of his release.

High Court Judge Alex Lee released the pro-democracy magnate on 23 December, after 20 days of detention, served in part in a maximum security prison where gangsters and crime bosses are held.

The 73-year-old owner of the Apple Daily newspaper, which has criticised Hong Kong and Chinese leaders, has been accused of “collaboration“ with foreign forces, an offence included in China’s new national security law.

The prosecution has based its charges on interviews that Lai granted to foreign publications. His call for foreign governments to sanction the Hong Kong authorities for their actions against the democratic movement is included.

The media magnate was taken into custody on 3 December on fraud charges, and faces life in prison if convicted.

According to experts, Judge Lee’s arguments provide Lai's lawyers with the basis for their defence strategy in the upcoming trial, set for 16 April.

The judge’s ruling is also seen as an act of independence by Hong Kong’s judiciary vis-à-vis pressures exerted by Beijing.

Lai had to put up US$ 1.3 million in bail money to be freed. He also had to agree to remain under house arrest, be closely monitored by police, and not give interviews, use social media or meet foreign government officials.

Prosecutors have challenged Lai’s release. The Court of Appeal could overturn the High Court’s ruling and order Lai back to prison as early as tomorrow.

Chinese state media have attacked the High Court's decision, citing Article 55 of the security law as the legal basis for deporting Lai and trying him in a mainland court.

On Sunday, an editorial in the People's Daily called Lai an “extremely dangerous” person, arguing that his release undermines the rule of law in Hong Kong.

Five members of the Law Society's governing body on Wednesday demanded that mainland state media stop their “unfounded attacks” on Hong Kong's judiciary.

The Hong Kong Bar Association also denounced the pressure coming from Beijing-controlled media, noting that it could undermine Lai's right to a fair trial.

To protect the judicial independence of the former British colony, the barristers’ group called on Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng to intervene.

They doubt that Chinese authorities can ensure due process in the event that Lai is tried in the mainland.

According to them, the security law lacks “legal certainty” and does not adequately protect the fundamental rights of the accused.