Hong Kong — After more than three years in prison, the long-awaited and postponed trial of pro-democracy activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai began Monday morning under tight security measures in Hong Kong.
In the most high-profile case since Beijing imposed a controversial national security law in 2020, Hong Kong authorities accused Lai of “colluding with foreign forces” to impose sanctions, blockades or engaging in other hostile activities as well as conspiring to disseminate inflammatory materials. Under current British colonial era law.
If convicted, 76-year-old Lai faces spending the rest of his life in prison. But the odds are against him. Earlier this year, Hong Kong’s security chief, Chris Tang, boasted of a 100% conviction rate under the national security law.
On the first day of what is expected to be a marathon 80-day trial, Lai sat quietly in the glass-encased dock at the back of the courtroom, leaning back in his chair with his arms folded, listening to his defense team argue for dismissal of sedition charges. He was wearing a blue shirt and a beige-gray jacket, and was surrounded by at least three uniformed police officers sitting next to and in front of him. When he entered the courtroom earlier in the morning, he waved to supporters in the public gallery, including his wife, daughter and youngest son.
Sitting on the bench are three judges from the Supreme Court for National Security, who will preside over the entire trial, which will be heard without a jury.
The trial was originally supposed to begin last December, but was postponed several times so that Beijing could reinterpret the national security law to allow Hong Kong authorities to block Lai’s choice of a British lawyer abroad to represent him and allow the prosecution to prepare a translation for the trial. Nearly 5,000 pages of documentation are in English.
The proceedings are open to the media and the public, and the judiciary even moved the trial from Hong Kong’s High Court to a more spacious venue across the harbor with spare space for potential observers. While dozens of supporters lined up throughout the night to secure a place inside the actual courtroom, the police presence outside Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Law Courts clearly outnumbered them and gathered media, and the roads surrounding the court were lined with police trucks and at least one armored vehicle.
Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have long portrayed Lai and his now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, which was forced to close in June 2021, as the main instigators of the anti-government protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019.
Just last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ninglai was described as “one of the most notorious anti-China elements bent on destabilizing Hong Kong and the mastermind of the Hong Kong riots.”
“He has blatantly colluded with external forces to undermine China’s national security and is responsible for many heinous acts. This is beyond reproach,” Mao continued.
Authorities have not yet revealed what evidence they have on Lai other than accusing the businessman of using his then-Twitter and Apple Daily accounts to call for sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post last month, Hong Kong Security Minister Chris Tang said: “When you look at all the details as they were revealed, you will see how bad they are.”
Since Beijing imposed a national security law on the former British colony during the summer of 2020, Hong Kong authorities have arrested almost the entire pro-democracy camp or forced them into exile. Lai was arrested just over a month after the law was passed.
In an interview with ABC News while out on bail later that summer, Lay said: “I knew it was coming, I didn’t know it was going to be this fast. But it’s okay, I’m okay, I accept it.” “…At this time in my life, it’s payback time. Whatever happens is redemption.”
“I came here with a dollar. I fled China when I was 12 years old. [Hong Kong] He gave me everything. My reward is payment. He is my salvation.”
Lai’s trial is being closely watched by the West, which has criticized Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong. A conviction would further inflame relations between Western capitals and Beijing.
On the eve of Monday’s trial, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller issued a statement saying: “The United States condemns the prosecution of pro-democracy advocate and media owner Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong under the National Security Law imposed by the People’s Republic of China. Lai has been arrested and detained for He has been on trial for more than 1,000 days, and the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities have denied him the choice of legal representation.
“We call on the Hong Kong authorities to immediately release Jimmy Lai and all others imprisoned for standing up for their rights.”
On Monday morning, representatives from at least 10 Western consulates, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, attended to observe the start of the trial.
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