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Hong Kong’s top court allows UK lawyer to defend publisher Jimmy Lai

Lai faces maximum punishment of life imprisonment under contentious national security law

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Monday 28 November 2022 14:37 GMT
Related: Hong Kong objects to protest anthem being played at Rugby Sevens

Hong Kong’s top court has upheld a ruling to allow a veteran British human rights lawyer to represent pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai in a national security trial.

Hong Kong’s department of justice has made repeated attempts to block London-based lawyer Timothy Owen from representing Mr Lai, 74.

Mr Lai, the founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper and a high-profile critic of the Communist Party, was arrested after Beijing imposed a draconian national security law following the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

Critics have accused Beijing of throttling dissent with the help of the national security law, under which alleged crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Following Monday’s court ruling, city leader John Lee said the Hong Kong government will ask the Chinese national people’s congress standing committee to rule on whether any foreign lawyers can be involved in national security cases.

The court ruled that Hong Kong had raised “undefined and unsubstantiated issues said to involve national security” that were not mentioned or explored in lower courts.

“No appropriate basis has been made out for the grant of leave to appeal,” judges observed.

Mr Lai faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment on charges of two counts of conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries or external elements and one count of collusion with foreign forces under the national security law.

He also faces a sedition charge linked to his Apple Daily newspaper that was forced to close in June 2020.

His trial is set to start on 1 December and is expected to last nearly 30 days.

Apart from the city’s secretary for justice appealing the decision, pro-Beijing politicians and newspapers have also objected to Mr Owen defending the publisher.

Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to China’s top legislative body, warned over the weekend that the institution would need to “interpret” the law – a move that could effectively preempt the court judgment.

At a hearing on 25 November, a lawyer representing the city told the Court of Final Appeal that it is seeking a “blanket ban” on foreign lawyers working with anyone charged under the national security law.

Rimsky Yuen, a lawyer representing the government, argued that cases involving such a “unique” piece of legislation pertaining to national security required someone familiar with China, which an overseas lawyer “would not be in a position” to be.

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