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Jimmy Lai: UK refuses to release details of efforts to free British citizen jailed by China ‘to avoid damaging relations’

Media tycoon and activist Jimmy Lai has been detained in China since 2020 and while foreign secretary James Cleverly says he raised the issue in Beijing, it is not clear how

Alexander Butler
Wednesday 25 October 2023 12:16 BST
Jimmy Lai has been detained in China for three years
Jimmy Lai has been detained in China for three years (AP)

The family of a British citizen imprisoned by China has hit out at the UK government for refusing to release details of efforts to free him after it claimed doing so could “damage relations” with Beijing.

Media tycoon and activist Jimmy Lai’s loved ones fear he will die in prison after the 75-year-old was detained under China’s draconian National Security Law in 2020.

In August, foreign secretary James Cleverly tweeted that he had challenged China on Mr Lai’s case.

But the Foreign Office has refused to release a record of the meeting, despite acknowledging the public interest in doing so.

Mr Lai’s son and campaigners described the decision as “disappointing” and urged the government to be “frank and open” about its discussions with China about his arrest.

Posting a video from a runway in China on 30 August as he prepared to leave after 24 hours in the country, Mr Cleverly said: “In Beijing, I challenged China on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai and the treatment of UK Parliamentarians.

“But we cannot just ignore China on everything else. We have got to work with China on the issues that will impact us all.”

The Independent subsequently submitted a freedom of information request asking what the foreign secretary said about Mr Lai’s imprisonment.

Rejecting the request, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) said: “We acknowledge that releasing this information would increase public knowledge and provide transparency in regards to the meeting.

“But the disclosure of the conversation between senior members of the UK and Chinese governments could potentially damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and China.”

Mr Lai’s son and other campaigners have now urged the British government to press Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to “immediately” release him.

British foreign secretary James Cleverly with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in August this year (AP)

“Far from damaging the relationship, calling for my father’s release would be a vital step in repairing it,” Sebastien Lai told The Independent. “The US government and the European parliament have publicly called for my father’s release.

“It is disappointing that our own government has so far failed to do the same and won’t be open and frank about its discussions with China on his case.”

Mr Lai was and charged with four offences under China’s the National Security Law in August 2020, one of which included lighting a candle in commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

He was then sentenced to 20 months in prison and was given a further five years and nine months last year on two separate charges described by rights groups as “politically motivated”.

The National Security Law criminalised “secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces” and was criticised as being “vague” by Amnesty International, who said the purpose of it was to crackdown on dissent against the Chinese Communist Party.

Sebastien Lai, son of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, holds a sign calling for the release of his father (REUTERS)

The media mogul is now facing a life sentence on a charge of ‘colluding with foreign powers’ for publishing a newspaper highly critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mark Sabah, UK director of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, also told The Independent: “Why should it be a secret that the Foreign Secretary is fighting for the release of a British citizen?

“It is something he should be shouting from the rooftops and be proud to be doing. The British government should press the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to immediately release 75-year-old Jimmy Lai, who has courageously, and peacefully, fought for freedom.”

He claimed it was more damaging to withhold information from the British public about what the government said regarding their “fellow citizen”.

In August, Hong Kong’s High Court suggested Mr Lai’s trial would be adjourned for the third time, delaying the prospect of him facing the alleged offences against national security and sedition.

Caoilifhionn Gallagher KC, who is part of his international legal team, described the delay as a “charade”.

A FCDO spokesperson told The Independent: “We are withholding this information under Section 27(1)(a) of the FOIA.

“This section of the Act recognises the need to protect information that would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and other states if it was disclosed.”

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