National security trial begins for Jimmy Lai, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy media mogul

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(HONG KONG) — After more than three years in prison, pro-democracy activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai’s long-awaited and delayed national security trial opened Monday morning under heavy security in Hong Kong.

In the most high-profile case since Beijing’s imposition of its controversial national security law in 2020, Hong Kong authorities have charged Lai with “colluding with foreign forces” to sanction, blockade or engage in other hostile activities as well as conspiracy to publish seditious material under an existing British colonial-era law.

If convicted, the 76-year-old Lai faces spending the rest of his life in prison. The odds, however, are against him. Earlier this year, Hong Kong’s security chief Chris Tang boasted about the 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 calmly in the glass-encased dock at the back of the courtroom, leaning back on his seat with his arms folded, listening to his defense team argue to dismiss his sedition charges. Dressed in blue shirt and grey-ish beige blazer, he was flanked 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 at his supporters in the public gallery which included his wife, his daughter and his youngest son.

At the bench sat three handpicked national security High Court judges who will preside over the entire trial that will be heard without a jury.

The trial was originally supposed to have gotten underway last December but was delayed several times for Beijing to reinterpret the national security law to allow Hong Kong authorities to bar Lai’s choice of overseas British lawyer from representing him and to allow the prosecution to prepare the translation of nearly 5,000 pages of documents into English.

The proceedings are open to the media and the public with the judiciary even moving the trial from Hong Kong’s High Court to a more spacious venue across the harbor with overflow space for potential observers. While dozens of supporters lined up overnight to secure a spot inside the actual courtroom, the police presence outside Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Law Courts visibly outnumbered them and gathered the media, the roads around the courthouse lined with police vans and at least one armored vehicle.

Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have long painted Lai and his now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which was forced to close in June 2021, as the main instigators of anti-government protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019.

Just last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning called Lai “one of the most notorious anti-China elements bent on destabilizing Hong Kong and a mastermind of the riots that took place in Hong Kong.”

“He blatantly colluded with external forces to undermine China’s national security and is responsible for numerous egregious acts,” Mao continued, “This is beyond reproach.”

Authorities have yet to reveal what evidence they have on Lai beyond accusing the businessman using his then-twitter account and Apple Daily to call for sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials.

In an interview with South China Morning Post last month, Hong Kong security minister Chris Tang teased that “when you look at all the details as disclosed, you will see how bad they are.”

Since Beijing imposed the national security law on the former British colony over the summer of 2020, Hong Kong authorities have rounded up nearly the entire pro-democracy camp or forced them into exile. Lai was arrested just over a month after the law was introduced.

In an interview with ABC News while he was out on bail later that summer, Lai reflected, “I knew it would come, I did not know that it would be so fast. but that’s fine, and I’m okay, I accept it. At this time of my life, it’s a pay back time whatever happens is a redemption.”

“I came here with one dollar. Escaped from China when I was twelve. [Hong Kong] gave me everything. My reward is to pay back. It’s my redemption.”

Lai’s trial is being closely watched by the West who have decried Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong. A conviction would risk further inflaming relations between Western capitals and Beijing.

On the eve of Monday’s trial, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller released a statement saying, “The United States condemns the prosecution of pro-democracy advocate and media owner Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong under the PRC-imposed National Security Law. Lai has been held in pre-trial detention for more than 1,000 days, and Hong Kong and Beijing authorities have denied him his choice of legal representation.”

“We call on Hong Kong authorities to immediately release Jimmy Lai and all others imprisoned for defending their rights.”

Representatives from at least 10 western consulates including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia were in attendance Monday morning observing the trial get underway.

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