Jimmy Lai lawyers urge Hong Kong court to throw out sedition charge as landmark trial begins

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The landmark trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai began in Hong Kong on Monday, with his lawyers seeking the dismissal of sedition charges due to the amount of time that had already lapsed when he was formally charged.

Mr Lai, 76, has already spent more than 1,000 days in detention since he was arrested in August 2020. He is facing charges of colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security and conspiring with others to release seditious publications.

The China critic and founder of the now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was taken to the West Kowloon Law Courts building in a prison van around 7.30am local time.

Mr Lai is the most high profile of nearly 300 people arrested under a Beijing-imposed security law, and his trial is being closely watched as a test of press freedom and judicial independence in the Asian financial hub.

There was a heavy police presence outside the court as people queued to get a place in the public gallery, with some supporters camping out the night before. Hong Kong's security chief warned last week any attempts to disrupt proceedings would not be tolerated.

Activist Alexandra Wong, also known as Grandma Wong, holds a British flag outside the West Kowloon Law Courts (AP)
Activist Alexandra Wong, also known as Grandma Wong, holds a British flag outside the West Kowloon Law Courts (AP)

Mr Lai wore a crew-cut top and a grey jacket in the court and appeared calm and thinner than on his previous appearances. He smiled and waved at his supporters.

The trial began more than a year after it was scheduled to commence after the city administration appealed to Beijing to block Mr Lai’s attempt to hire a British attorney.

Mr Lai’s legal team led by Robert Pang Yiu-hung focused on the sedition charges, arguing that the prosecution had passed the time limit for charging the media tycoon. Under the colonial sedition law, charges must be laid within six months of the alleged offence.

Mr Pang 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 expired.

“[The prosecution] is out of time therefore there’s no jurisdiction for the court,” Mr Pang told the judges, according to the South China Morning Post.

Police officers stand guard as an armored prison van carrying Jimmy Lai leaves West Kowloon Law Courts (AP)
Police officers stand guard as an armored prison van carrying Jimmy Lai leaves West Kowloon Law Courts (AP)

In his opening remarks to the court, Mr Pang told judges Esther Toh, Susana D’Almada Remedios and Alex Lee: “When fundamental rights are engaged, any protection must be interpreted generously in favour of Mr Lai and narrowly for the prosecution.”

Mr Lai has pleaded not guilty to all the national security charges brought, which could see him jailed for life if he is convicted. He is already serving five years and nine months for a fraud conviction over a lease dispute for his newspaper.

A lone protester chanting for Mr Lai’s release was fenced off by police about 100 yards from the courtroom.

“The national security law has destroyed the legal foundations of the past,” said the activist, Alexandra Wong, 67, flanked by six uniformed and plainclothes police officers.

“Lai has been detained in prison for almost three years now. I want to witness this,” Jolly Chung, 29, told Reuters.

“If he can’t come out and has to die in prison, I hope he can be proud of himself, and many Hong Kongers want to say thank you to him.”

Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, a vocal democracy advocate in the city, and representatives from foreign consulates were among the attendees.

Cardinal Joseph Zen arrives at the West Kowloon Law Courts (EPA)
Cardinal Joseph Zen arrives at the West Kowloon Law Courts (EPA)

Mr Lai’s trial, which is expected to last 80 days, was condemned by both the UK and US as an “attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association”.

“I urge the Chinese authorities to repeal the national security law and end the prosecution of all individuals charged under it,” British foreign secretary David Cameron said in a statement.

“I call on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution and release Jimmy Lai.”

The US state department joined the plea, saying: “We call on Hong Kong authorities to immediately release Jimmy Lai and all others imprisoned for defending their rights.”