Hong Kong publisher’s security process continues to be delayed

HONG KONG (AP) – The national security trial of a pro-democracy Hong Kong publisher was further postponed to next September on Tuesday as the city awaits Beijing’s ruling, which could effectively bar him from hiring a British defense attorney.

Jimmy Lai, who was arrested in August 2020 during a crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy movement, is fighting charges of endangering national security. The 75-year-old founder of the now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily faces life in prison if convicted under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing.

His high-profile trial, originally scheduled to start on December 1, was postponed earlier this month after Hong Kong leader John Lee asked China’s top legislature to decide whether foreign lawyers who don’t normally practice in Hong Kong could be admitted involved in national security cases.

Lee filed the request hours after the city’s highest court approved Lai’s plan to hire Timothy Owen, a veteran human rights attorney.

If Beijing intervenes, it would be the sixth time the communist-ruled government has intervened despite its promise to respect Hong Kong’s judicial independence and civil liberties for at least 50 years after China took over Britain in 1997.

Members of China’s top legislative body are expected to meet in late December. But the interpretation of the law was not part of the agenda of the meeting, reported by China’s official Xinhua news agency last Friday. Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the panel said Monday that at some previous events, new agendas were only added during the meeting. But Tam Yiu-chung couldn’t say how the committee would handle Lee’s request.

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Judge Esther Toh has set the trial to begin on September 25, 2023 in light of recent developments and taking into account the court’s and attorneys’ timetables. It is expected to end on November 21st.

Owen left Hong Kong after immigration officials refused his visa extension while authorities awaited Beijing’s decision, Lai’s lawyer said.

Lai is accused of conspiring with others in hostile activities against Hong Kong or China, such as calling for sanctions. He also faces charges of colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security and a separate charge of sedition under a colonial-era law increasingly used to quash dissent.

He was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on Saturday for fraud after serving a 20-month sentence for his role in unauthorized gatherings.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the latest conviction on Twitter on Sunday and urged Chinese authorities to respect Hong Kong’s freedom of expression, including for the press.

In response, the Hong Kong government said the statement was political interference in the city’s judicial system, adding the fraud case had nothing to do with freedom of the press or freedom of expression.

Former Stand News editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen, who was accused of conspiring to publish inflammatory materials, secured bail on Tuesday in a separate court hearing after serving nearly a year in detention. The now-closed Stand News was one of the last news outlets in the city to openly criticize the government following the Apple Daily shutdown.

Chung and his former colleague Patrick Lam were charged under a colonial-era sedition law that is increasingly being used to silence critical voices in the city. Lam was granted bail last month.

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Hong Kong fell more than 60 places to 148th in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, released in May. The global media regulator cited the closure of the two outlets in its rating.

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