Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai's trial postponed: No from pro-Beijing authorities to his British lawyer

Slated to open today, the trial has been adjourned until 13 December. The local executive has asked the National People's Congress to prevent Lai from being defended by Timothy Owen. Former associates of the Catholic tycoon prepared to testify against him. The former British colony risks a further blow to its judicial independence.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - The city's High Court has postponed the long-awaited trial of Catholic tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai, due to start today, until December 13.

The three judges in charge of the proceedings granted the Justice Department's request for an adjournment. The local authorities had asked the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) for an interpretation of the draconian National Security Law, imposed by Beijing in the summer of 2020 to suppress the demands of the pro-democracy movement.

The city executive has asked China's highest legislative authority to determine whether foreign lawyers can be hired in national security cases, including Britain's Timothy Owen, who leads the legal team defending Lai.

Several local courts have rejected government attempts to ban Owen from defending Lai. The latest rejection came on 28 November from the Court of Final Appeal. While the security provision specifies that trials should be presided over by ad hoc judges, nothing is written against the use of foreign lawyers. Meanwhile, according to Reuters, the Immigration Department has refused to extend a work visa to the British lawyer.

The 74-year-old pro-Democrat tycoon has been in prison since December 2020. He is serving a sentence for participating in unauthorised demonstrations and is on trial for four charges: two of conspiring to collude with other countries or 'outside elements'; one of colluding with foreign forces; and the last of conspiring to print, publish, sell, distribute and reproduce 'seditious' publications.

Life imprisonment is also foreseen for violation of the Security Act. For the crime of sedition, the maximum penalty is two years. Last month, Lai already received a conviction for fraud related to the activities of Apple Daily, the independent newspaper he founded, which was closed down in 2021 after coming under investigation by the judiciary for threats to national security.

Since Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, this is only the sixth time the city government has turned to Beijing for a legal interpretation. In all likelihood, the central authorities' decision will have little practical effect on Lai's judicial fate: six other defendants in the orbit of Apple Daily and its holding company (Next Digital) have pleaded guilty and some of them will testify against the billionaire.

What worries many observers and members of the democratic camp is that the NPC Standing Committee's decision deals another blow to the city's judicial independence. After the handover from British to Chinese control 25 years ago, and until 2047, Hong Kong is supposed to be governed according to the 'one country, two systems' formula, with wide-ranging freedoms recognised with respect to the rest of China.