Trial of Jimmy Lai and 47 pro-democracy activists without jury
The trial for the Catholic tycoon, founder of the Apple Daily newspaper - in jail for 20 months - will begin on 1 December. It will be entrusted to a panel of three specially appointed judges, dropping a cornerstone of the local system's legal protections. Lai has announced that he will plead not guilty to charges of "sedition and conspiracy with foreign forces" for which he faces life imprisonment.
Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - The trials of Jimmy Lai, the Catholic tycoon and publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper (forced to shut down), who has been in prison since December 2020, and those of the 47 activists of the pro-democracy movement, including Benny Tai and Joshua Wong, accused of "conspiracy and attempting to undermine security" for organising primary elections in the summer of 2020 ahead of the vote for the Legislative Assembly, will be held in Hong Kong without a popular jury, but only before a small panel of three judges appointed by the government.
The news emerged in recent days in the context of some preliminary procedural hearings ahead of the trial, which is scheduled to begin in the case of Jimmy Lai and the six other journalists and administrators of the Apple Daily on 1 December. On that occasion, Lai's defence also made it known that at the trial Jimmy Lai will proclaim himself innocent of the crimes of 'sedition and conspiracy with foreign forces' attributed to him. These are charges for which life imprisonment is also foreseen. In order to then be able to meet the legal costs, the funds of Lai's companies, whose financial suffocation had been the road to the newspaper's closure in June 2021, were also released.
Trials without popular jury are a further significant step in the cancellation of personal protections. "One of the most important features of Hong Kong's legal system is trial by jury, i.e. trial in court by fellow members of the community of the person on trial," reads the statement that still stands on the official page presenting the criminal procedures inherited from the British Mandate and in force for over 170 years.
The infamous National Security laws have now allowed them to be challenged. The administration officially justified the use of the small panel of only specially appointed judges by claiming that it would be difficult for it to guarantee the personal safety of the jurors and their families. But rather, the concern to avoid possible surprises in the two most important verdicts on the protests in 2019 is evident.
After all, another trial without a jury for charges related to the National Security Act already took place in July last year in the case of activist Tong Ying-kit, who was charged with 'inciting secession' and 'acts of terrorism' for waving a flag bearing a political slogan: as easily predictable, he was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Tik Chi-yuen, the only non-aligned MP in Beijing who - amidst arrests, rejected applications and armoured nomination systems - was elected to the National Assembly, had spoken out publicly in recent days against the decision to exclude the people's jury from the trial of the 47 activists in the primary election affair. In a letter to Justice Minister Paul Lam, he wrote that 'the primary elections involved the public in casting their vote. Therefore, public participation should be part of the characteristics of this case'. However, there is no chance that this request by Tik Chi-yuen will be granted.
This is also why there were different trial choices among the 47 accused: 29 - including Benny Lai and Joshua Wong themselves - had their lawyers declare at the preliminary hearing that they will plead guilty, while the other 18 will dismiss the charges. According to the latest data from the Hong Kong Political Prisoners Database, there are currently 1014 people detained for political reasons in the former British colony.
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