Hong Kong’s top court lets UK lawyer defend publisher Lai


HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s top court on Monday upheld a ruling that a veteran British lawyer was due to defend a 74-year-old pro-democracy publisher in his national security trial this week, despite fierce opposition from the pro-Beijing camp in the southern Chinese city.

Jimmy Lai, the founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily and one of the most prominent figures in the city’s pro-democracy movement, was arrested after Beijing imposed a tough national security law to crack down on dissidents, following widespread protests in 2019 for collusion and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. His trial is scheduled to begin on Thursday.

While the city’s justice minister has appealed the decision, pro-Beijing politicians and newspapers have also objected in recent days. Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to China’s top legislative body, warned on Saturday that the body would have to “interpret” the law – a move that could effectively pre-empt the court ruling – if the situation remained unchanged.

In a closely watched ruling, the top court ruled on Monday that the minister had raised “undefined and unfounded issues allegedly concerning national security” that were not mentioned or examined in the lower courts.

“No proper basis has been invoked to allow the appeals,” the judges said.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to China in 1997, uses the same common law jurisdiction as the UK. Aside from having judges from abroad working in the city’s courts, attorneys from other common law jurisdictions may work within the city’s legal system, particularly if they have expertise required for some cases.

The lawyer involved in Lai’s case was Timothy Owen, a London-based legal veteran specializing in criminal and human rights law.

Matrix Chambers’ Owen has appeared in previous high profile cases in Hong Kong. He represented British banker Rurik Jutting, who was convicted of murdering two women, and a police officer who is appealing his conviction for assaulting a pro-democracy activist during the 2014 protests.

Last month the lower court gave him approval to represent Lai, saying it was in the public interest to bring a prominent foreign specialist like Owen into the trial. But the Attorney General persisted in his objections, despite other judges rejecting his requests to have that judgment overturned. He proposed a blanket ban on foreign lawyers involved in national security cases, except in exceptional circumstances.

Lai is already serving a 20-month sentence for his role in unauthorized gatherings. He is also awaiting conviction for his fraud conviction next month.

His legal team had previously asked the United Nations to investigate his detention and multiple charges of “legal harassment” to punish him for speaking out.

The National Security Law criminalizes succession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. It has led to the arrest of many prominent democracy activists and damaged confidence in the future of the international financial center.