China lets Hong Kong leader override courts over lawyer Jimmy Lai

HONG KONG — China’s top legislature said Hong Kong’s leader has the power to override the courts to determine whether overseas lawyers can participate in national security cases, a decision likely to prevent dissident publisher Jimmy Lai from doing so to hire a British lawyer in his upcoming trial.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee last month sought Beijing’s intervention after the city’s top court overruled the government and said Mr Lai could hire British lawyer Timothy Owen to represent him in the national security case.

Friday’s decision by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress gives Mr. Lee or the National Security Committee he chairs the final say on such decisions.

Legal experts have been closely watching the trial as an indicator of the independence of the city’s judiciary, after China imposed a tough national security law to quell a year of fierce protests.

The decision “devastates Hong Kong’s remaining level of rule of law and judicial independence” as it opens the door for local authorities to overrule the courts if they believe a case is linked to national security, Eric Lai said, a research fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.

Hong Kong courts had ruled that British lawyer Timothy Owen could represent former publisher Jimmy Lai.



Mr Lee welcomed the decision and said it would not grant the chief executive additional powers beyond what is stipulated in the national security law. Overseas lawyers are welcome to work on cases that have nothing to do with national security, Mr. Lee said.

An official with the Standing Committee’s Legislative Affairs Commission said the decision does not undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy but said the work of the National Security Committee should not be called into question, according to Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency.

The Hong Kong Court of Appeal’s decision in Mr Lai’s favor in November was a rare setback for the city government, which has used the law to launch a sweeping crackdown on publishers, opposition lawmakers and organizations such as unions, with large and sometimes violent consequences following protests against the government in the city.

Mr. Lai, 75, is the founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily, a staunchly pro-democracy newspaper, and a harsh critic of Beijing and its rule in Hong Kong. He has been accused by Beijing of helping orchestrate the 2019 protests and faces charges over alleged sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials for collusion with foreign powers.

Hong Kong has a long common law tradition of allowing British lawyers admission into the city’s judicial system to act for either the accused or the government. Its Supreme Court also has several foreign judges who may be invited to join the panels conducting appeals.

It is difficult to prevent foreign lawyers in national security cases from being influenced or pressured by their governments in national security cases and to ensure they would not divulge state secrets revealed during proceedings, Mr Lee said in November.

Mr. Lai has been behind bars since December 2020. While awaiting trial before the national security law, he was sentenced to various prison terms, including nearly six years for fraud for subletting a business and an additional 20 months for taking part in unauthorized protests.

His trial, originally scheduled for December, was postponed to September 2023 after the Hong Kong government asked Beijing to intervene.

Since the city’s handover to China in 1997, Beijing has issued five additional interpretations of the city’s Basic Law, superseding all local court rulings. Hong Kong lawyers and activists have criticized these interventions, saying they undermine the independence of the city’s courts.

Write to Selina Cheng at [email protected]

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