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Jimmy Lai, figure of democracy in Hong Kong, is tried after a long delay

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Unlike other Hong Kong tycoons who were careful not to provoke Chinese leaders, Jimmy Lai had long been a proud rebel. He founded a resolutely anti-Beijing newspaper. He was a prominent face during the massive pro-democracy protests. He lobbied American authorities to protest the city’s declining autonomy.

SO, in 2020, Mr. Lai was arrested, becoming one of the first major targets of a national security law imposed by Beijing to crush the opposition. On Monday, after three years in prison and unusually long procedural delays, Mr. Lai finally had his day in court.

When Mr. Lai, 76, entered the courtroom, wearing a khaki blazer over a blue shirt, family members and dozens of supporters seated in the gallery waved to him. He waved back and smiled, after sitting down in a booth closed by a window.

Mr Lai has been charged with “collusion with foreign forces” under the national security law and faces life in prison if convicted. He is currently serving a five-year sentence in a fraud case, apparently held in solitary confinement. Human rights activists and the U.S. and British governments have denounced the charges against Mr. Lai as spurious and politically motivated.

“Jimmy Lai is the symbol of a blatant and very direct attack on what the Communist Party considers the most important thing: strong and thorough control” of the party over Hong Kong, said Willy Lam, a China expert at the Jamestown Foundation. in Washington.

Authorities initially tolerated Mr. Lai, probably to show that Beijing respected the city’s autonomy, Mr. Lam said, but they took a hard line against him after massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019. “Xi Jinping’s leadership has become much more conservative, even reactionary,” Mr. Lam said.

Authorities used the national security law not only against Mr. Lai, but also to silence dissent throughout the city. Their investigations have forced the shutdown of independent media, ousted pro-democracy lawmakers and suppressed noisy protests on campuses and in the streets that once distinguished Hong Kong from the rest of China and gave it a reputation as vibrant, free and open.

Around the Hong Kong courthouse where Mr. Lai’s trial was being held, security was tight. Police dogs were herded around the courthouse entrance while dozens of police vans, including armored vehicles, lined the roads nearby. Alexandra Wong, a veteran campaigner known as “Grandma Wong”, held up the Union Jack, recalling Hong Kong’s colonial past before Britain returned it to China. She shouted “Support Jimmy Lai!” Stand up for the truth! before being surrounded in an enclosure by police officers.

Since Mr. Lai’s arrest, the city has changed dramatically. It is now led by John Lee, a former security chief who led the crackdown that put dozens of opposition figures like Mr. Lai behind bars. The government also now has the power to vet election candidates, disqualifying anyone deemed disloyal to Beijing. Residents are encouraged to spy on their colleagues and neighbors.

Mr. Lai faces charges of collusion with foreign forces under the national security law as well as a charge of sedition based on remarks he made online and articles published by his newspaper, Apple Daily.

Mr. Lai’s trial will be the highest-profile test yet of how Hong Kong’s British-style justice system will interpret and apply Beijing’s national security law, in which political crimes are vaguely defined. China says the law is necessary to stamp out threats to Beijing’s sovereignty, but activists and academics have said the law would erode the city’s vaunted judicial independence.

The prosecution of Mr. Lai has been marred by violations of his right to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said, noting that he is being denied a jury trial, once a common practice in Hong Kong when defendants faced serious charges. sanctions. Instead, the three judges in Mr. Lai’s case are part of a panel chosen by Hong Kong’s leader to handle national security cases.

The rights group also highlighted Mr. Lai’s prolonged detention before his trial and his denial of legal assistance of his choice. Mr. Lai had sought representation by Timothy Owen, a veteran British lawyer, but the authorities excluded Mr. Owen from the case.

The accusations against Mr. Lai relate in part to posts he made on social media and articles published in Apple Daily, urging Western governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China. Prosecutors argued that such calls violated the national security law. Mr. Lai also faces sedition charges.

Mr. Lai, who was born on the mainland and moved to Hong Kong when he was 12, was not always a thorn in Beijing’s side. For a time, his story was one of opportunity and success in Hong Kong, where he rose through the factory ranks to make his fortune building Giordano, a clothing retail chain that opened outlets sales throughout Asia.

But in 1989, when student activists in Chinese cities pushed for a greater say in their government, Mr. Lai’s policies hardened. He printed T-shirts and protest banners in support of the activists who took to the streets of Beijing. After Chinese troops killed hundreds, if not thousands, of demonstrators occupying Tiananmen Square, Mr. Lai decided to become a publisher, launching Next Magazine in 1990 and Apple Daily in 1995. “I believe in media, putting out information, you “We really offer freedom,” Mr. Lai said in a 2020 interview with The New York Times.

He angered authorities in 1996 by insulting Li Peng, the Chinese prime minister who had ordered a crackdown on student protesters in 1989. After that, Chinese authorities began closing Giordano stores and Mr. Lai decided to sell its shares in the clothing sector and to concentrate on publishing.

Over the past decade, Mr. Lai has become the main opposition media figure in Hong Kong. Its media outlets extensively covered pro-democracy protesters in 2014, when they occupied swathes of the city during what became known as the Umbrella Movement, and again in 2019 and 2020. It was a frequent target, both verbally and physically: -Beijing media have long vilified him and the entrance to his house, a 1930s villa on a leafy street in Kowloon, was set on fire.

In 2020, after Beijing imposed the new security law on Hong Kong, authorities quickly raided Apple Daily’s offices. Mr. Lai was arrested and later released on bail. The newspaper was forced to close its doors in 2021 after several prominent editors and writers as well as a senior executive from Mr Lai’s media group were also charged with “conspiracy to commit collusion” with foreign forces. Last year, these former employees pleaded guilty.

In August, the Associated Press published rare images and photos of Mr. Lai at Stanley Prison, a maximum security facility, where he spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. The AP reported that Mr. Lai, who could be seen in photographs in a brown prison uniform, was only allowed out 50 minutes a day to exercise alone in a small enclosure topped with barbed wire.

Mr. Lai’s son, Sebastien Lai, said in an interview that he had not seen Mr. Lai in three years and noted that his father appeared thinner in images released by the AP. Sébastien Lai lobbied Western officials, including David Cameron, the British Foreign Secretary, and the United Nations, to pressure Hong Kong to release his father.

“I think that every day that he is in prison, he shows that these freedoms that he fought for, these freedoms that the people of Hong Kong fought for, cannot be exchanged,” Sébastien Lai said in an interview.

“I am incredibly proud of my father’s work,” he added. “And I will continue to fight until he gets out of prison.”

Hong Kong authorities have denounced Sebastien Lai’s campaign – including his testimony in Geneva before the United Nations Human Rights Council in June – as “foreign interference” in legal proceedings.

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