Hong Kong Asks China to Bar UK Lawyer From Media Tycoon Trial

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong will ask China to interpret the law and determine whether overseas lawyers can be part of national security trials, after the government failed to bar a UK lawyer from defending prominent local dissident Jimmy Lai.

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Under the existing system, the government is powerless to prevent overseas lawyers from being subject to “dubious interference” or ensure they keep state secrets, the city’s leader John Lee said at a press conference Monday.

Lee’s briefing came hours after Hong Kong’s highest court dismissed an appeal by the government to overturn an earlier court decision allowing the UK’s Timothy Owen from representing Lai in his upcoming case.

Lai, 75, faces a possible life sentence if he is convicted of colluding with foreign forces in a trial that is scheduled to start Thursday. It’s unclear what state secrets might come up in the case against the former media tycoon. Prosecutors allege that Lai sought international sanctions against Hong Kong and China through his pro-democracy newspaper.

Lee said he will ask the justice secretary to seek an adjournment for Lai’s trial.

“The interpretation will target one specific group of people and one specific issue and given the far reaching implications we need to sort this out,” Lee said, adding that any ban wouldn’t apply to foreign lawyers based in the city.

Lee said he would submit his report to the central government “very soon” and will ask officials to consider his request as soon as possible.

The now-closed Apple Daily newspaper, which Lai founded, was one of the city’s most popular media outlets and championed greater freedoms in the Asian financial center before it was targeted by authorities who arrested senior editors, froze its bank accounts and effectively forced it to close in 2021.

The US, UK and other Western nations have condemned the closure of Apple Daily and the security law, with President Joe Biden saying Beijing was using it to “suppress independent media and silence dissenting views.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken previously called for Lai’s release, after a separate conviction related to the activist’s participation in a pro-democracy rally.

An international team of lawyers working for Lai have called on Western governments to make his upcoming trial a greater foreign policy priority.

This would be the first time the National People’s Congress Standing Committee offers an interpretation of the national security law — endorsed by President Xi Jinping — since passing it in 2020 without public debate or a vote by Hong Kong’s elected legislature.

The national security law is aimed at punishing acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with foreign and external forces.” It asserts broad powers to control sources of opposition, from democracy advocates to news agencies to overseas dissidents.

The Standing Committee has offered five interpretations of Hong Kong’s Basic Law -- its mini constitution -- since the UK handed the city back in 1997. The last was in 2016, when China’s top legislative body said those who voice separatist views couldn’t hold public office.

(Updates with comments from second paragraph)

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