12/18/2023, 17.55
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Jimmy Lai’s trial begins, Card Zen in the courtroom to show support

The authorities heavily guarded the courthouse to back the sedition argument. Lai’s defence raised a procedural point, noting that more than six months lapsed between Apple Daily’s closure and Lai’s indictment. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron calls on Jong Kong to “release Jimmy Lai”, noting that he is a British citizen, jailed for more than a thousand days “in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights”.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - After several delays, Jimmy Lai’s most important trial began this morning in Hong Kong amid a massive deployment of security forces . The businessman and pro-democracy activist is accused of sedition and collusion with foreign forces, offences that under the National Security Law carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The 76-year-old Catholic founder of the Apple Daily, an independent newspaper that was forced to close by the authorities in 2021, has already been in prison for more than a thousand days, after Beijing clamped down in 2020 on the city’s pro-democracy movement and jailed its main leaders.

Lai is already serving a sentence of five years and nine months for "fraud" based on allegations related to the newspaper's funding.

The current trial – seen as a litmus test of what remains of the rule of law in Hong Kong – opened at the West Kowloon Palace of Justice. About 400 public gallery seats were made available to the public, plus four rooms as court extensions will broadcast the proceedings live from the main courtroom.

Lai appeared thin but smiling. He greeted from afar his wife Teresa present in the courtroom, together with many friends, including Card Joseph Zen. The 92-year-old prelate, who was himself entangled with the national security law, came to express his support for Apple Daily’s founder.

Outside the heavily guarded courthouse, which included a bomb disposal van (to back the story that Jimmy Lai constituted a danger), 67-year-old Alexandra Wong – a prominent pro-democracy activist better known as Grandma Wong – staged a lone protest before she was led away.

"I support Jimmy Lai because I want truth," Ms Wong said. "People won't trust us. I wish he can come out soon. I wish to read Apple Daily again."

Jimmy Lai is before a panel of three specially appointed judges, without a jury. Despite having a dual passport, like many Hong Kong citizens, he was denied the opportunity to be defended by British lawyer Timothy Owen, an internationally renowned jurist.

He is therefore assisted by a Hong Kong lawyer, Robert Pang, who today immediately raised a procedural issue: the National Security Law refers to an old British colonial law that has a six-month limitation.

Jimmy Lai is accused of conspiring to have printed, published, sold or distributed "seditious publications" between April 2019 and 24 June 2021 when the last edition of Apple Daily came out, following a police raid and the arrest of the other paper executives.

The sedition charges against the media owner (who was already in prison) was only formally brought on 28 December 2021, after more than six months.

This argument is unlikely to be enough to sop the trial, but it does give an idea of the degree of arbitrariness in the way the law is being used to strike at Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces.

Tomorrow, the prosecution will start its case while the trial is expected to last about 80 days.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron intervened in favour of Jimmy Lai yesterday, calling for his release as a British citizen.

“As a prominent and outspoken journalist and publisher, Jimmy Lai has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association,” reads an official Foreign Office citing Mr Cameron. “I call on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution and release Jimmy Lai.”

After a meeting between Cameron and Jimmy Lai's son, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described the Apple Daily’s founder as “a major mastermind and participant of the anti-China riots in Hong Kong.”

Wang goes on to call Lai “an agent and pawn of the anti-China forces, and the person behind the riots in Hong Kong. What he did was detrimental to Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability”, noting that his and other trials are “legitimate and lawful”.

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