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Hong Kong court refuses to throw out sedition charge against media mogul Jimmy Lai

Judges rules prosecution filed sedition charge in time dismissing pro-democracy activist’s bid

Shweta Sharma
Friday 22 December 2023 14:40 GMT
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A Hong Kong court has rejected pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai’s attempt to quash the sedition charges he faces as part of a landmark national security trial.

The question of whether the sedition charge should stand was the subject of the first week of deliberations in the trial that began on Monday, after Mr Lai’s lawyers argued that prosecutors failed to bring the charges within the required six-month window of the alleged offence being committed.

That bid has failed, meaning the trial will go ahead with the former media mogul facing all three charges against him, as prosecutors prepare to present their case in the new year.

On the third day of the closely watched trial, Mr Lai returned to the West Kowloon Court wearing a navy blue blazer and a white scarf to face the three High Court judges hand-picked by the government.

Judge Esther Toh said the court found prosecutors followed proper criminal procedures in charging Mr Lai with sedition, ruling that the prosecution filed the charge in time.

“The application of the defence must fail,” they wrote in their judgment.

Mr Lai, the 76-year-old British citizen and founder of the now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is facing charges of colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security and conspiring with others to release seditious publications.

He was arrested in August 2020 during the Hong Kong administration’s crackdown on activists and China critics following the 2019 democracy movement, and has been held in solitary confinement for the past three years.

Teresa Lai (left), wife of Jimmy Lai, and their daughter Claire Lai Choi and son Lai Shun Yan arrive at the West Kowloon Court in Hong Kong (AFP/Getty)

Mr Lai again greeted his family with a smile after he entered the courtroom, and appeared calm.

If found guilty under Beijing’s broad national security law, he could potentially face life imprisonment.

The head of Mr Lai’s legal team, Robert Pang Yiu-hung, said Apple Daily published its final edition on 24 June 2021 and the charge would have expired on 24 December. But the defendant was brought before the court for the first time on 28 December, at least four days after the “time bar” had passed.

The court ruled that the limitation on time started to run on 24 June 2021, the last date of the alleged conspiracy, which the prosecution earlier said involved at least 160 articles.

Jimmy Lai poses during an interview in 2020 (AFP/Getty)

Judge Toh adjourned the trial until 2 January, when the court is expected to officially record Mr Lai’s plea. Additionally, the prosecution’s opening statement will be heard before witnesses are called to testify.

Already delayed by a year, the trial is expected to last 80 days, putting a spotlight on press freedom and judicial independence in the Asian financial hub as China tightens its grip on the former British colony.

The courthouse was heavily guarded with armed and plainclothes officers on patrol on Friday, and barricades were put up as police searched cars entering the building, despite the brevity of the hearing.

Fewer than a dozen people queued up outside the court building on Friday before 8.30am, in scenes unlike the opening day of the trial when dozens of people had arrived and raised slogans.

Mr Lai’s wife Teresa Li Wan-kam, son Lai Shun Yan and daughter Claire Lai Choi came to the hearing as well as some foreign consulate representatives.

Alexandra Wong, a prominent pro-democracy activist who is widely known as Grandma Wong, staged a lone protest, in scenes similar to the first day of trial.

Policemen stop activist Alexandra Wong, also known as Grandma Wong, as she carries a union flag outside the West Kowloon court ahead of the trial of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai on Friday (AFP/Getty)

She waved a union flag and chanted slogans before she was surrounded by dozens of police officers and taken to a spot opposite the court building.

Mr Lai has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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