Who is Jimmy Lai? Pro-Democracy Media Tycoon Under High-Profile Trial in Hong Kong – News18

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Last Updated: December 18, 2023, 07:16 IST

Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2021. (Reuters File Photo)

Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2021. (Reuters File Photo)

Follow the trial of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong, facing national security charges. The case sparks international concern

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai is set to stand trial on Monday, where he faces the city’s harsh national security charges that could send him to jail for life. Lai, 76, founded the now-shuttered Chinese-language tabloid Apple Daily, which criticised Beijing and backed the protest movement that roiled Hong Kong in 2019.

The pro-democracy figure stands accused of “collusion” with foreign forces under a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the finance hub in 2020. Lai will be tried without a jury and has been denied the lawyer of his choice. The US, Britain, the EU, and the UN have all expressed concerns about Lai’s case, but Beijing has dismissed them. Last week, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron met with Lai’s son Sebastien and later issued a statement saying the UK “will continue to stand with Jimmy Lai”, who is a British citizen.

‘Travesty of justice’

Dozens of activists have been charged under the 2020 national security law, but Lai is the first to contest a foreign “collusion” charge. Imprisoned for more than 1,100 days, Lai has already been convicted in five other cases, including for organising and participating in marches during the 2019 democracy protests. Apple Daily was forced to close in 2021 after authorities used the security law to raid it twice and freeze assets worth HK$18 million.

In a statement on Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that the trial was “a travesty of justice” and a “dark stain on Hong Kong’s rule of law”. “The trial is a travesty of justice. It may be Jimmy Lai who is in the dock, but it is press freedom and the rule of law that are on trial in Hong Kong,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, on Friday. “The government is pulling out all the stops to keep Lai behind bars. This is a dark stain on Hong Kong’s rule of law and is doing a disservice to the government’s efforts to restore investor confidence.”

The US State Department urged Lai’s release in a statement. “Actions that stifle press freedom and restrict the free flow of information… have undermined Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and harmed Hong Kong’s reputation as an international business and financial hub,” said spokesman Matthew Miller.

The Origin of Jimmy Lai

Jimmy Lai has been in prison for three years and faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life there. He is the first person to contest a “foreign collusion” charge under Hong Kong’s national security law, imposed in 2020 after huge democracy protests engulfed the city.

Born in mainland China, he was smuggled into Hong Kong as a stowaway at the age of 12 and as a child worked in sweatshops before he later built up the hugely successful Giordano clothing empire. Lai established his first publication shortly after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, writing columns that regularly criticised senior Chinese leaders. His two outlets — the Apple Daily newspaper and the digital-only Next magazine — were hugely popular in Hong Kong. They were also among the few publications that openly backed Hong Kong’s massive democracy protests in 2019.

Born Rebel

Lai was vilified in China’s state media as a “traitor”. Asked why he did not keep quiet and enjoy his wealth like other Hong Kong tycoons, Lai told AFP before his arrest: “Maybe I’m a born rebel, maybe I’m someone who needs a lot of meaning to live my life besides money.” He was first arrested in August 2020 when Hong Kong police raided Apple Daily and paraded him through the newsroom. A judge briefly granted him bail in December 2020 on steep conditions, including posting HK$10 million, but that lasted only a week before the top court ordered him back to prison.

He has been there ever since, with his son Sebastien Lai calling him “the oldest political prisoner in Hong Kong”. A different, tougher set of bail rules now apply to national security cases since the reversal in Lai’s case, affecting dozens of other prosecutions. Lai, a UK passport holder, was also denied his choice of representation for his collusion trial: veteran British human rights lawyer Tim Owen. Hong Kong courts initially sided with Lai, but Beijing responded by granting new powers to Hong Kong’s leader to screen overseas lawyers in security-related cases. The city’s pro-Beijing legislature went a step further in May, passing laws requiring overseas lawyers to get special permission to join security cases.

 ‘A death knell’

Lai has already been found guilty in five separate cases during the more than 1,100 days he has been in prison. He was handed a sentence of 20 months for organising and participating in marches during the democracy protests that formed the basis of four prosecutions. He was convicted in the fifth case of “conspiracy to defraud” for breaching the terms of an office lease. That added another 69 months to his sentence.

Separately, he tried to stop police from going through two of his cellphones, citing legal protections against searching journalistic materials, and attempted to protect his Apple Daily shareholder voting rights after the company’s assets were frozen. Lai lost both cases after High Court judges stressed the importance of national security. He told AFP before his arrest in 2020 that Beijing’s national security law would be “a death knell for Hong Kong”. “It will supersede or destroy our rule of law and destroy our international financial status,” he said.

(With agency inputs)



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