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Lawyers Call on Britain to Advocate More for Jailed Hong Kong Publisher

By Tommy Walker

May 1, 2023

FILE - Democracy advocate Jimmy Lai arrives at Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong Feb. 1, 2021.

BANGKOK — British lawyers for jailed Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai are calling for his case to receive more attention.

Lai, who was the owner of Next Digital, publisher of the pro-democracy Apple Daily that was forced to close, has been in prison since the end of 2020. He is facing life imprisonment if found guilty on charges under Hong Kong’s National Security Law.

Lai, who turns 76 this year, faces two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, and one count of collusion with foreign forces under the law. He pleaded not guilty to the charges in August. He also faces one charge linked to alleged seditious publications under a colonial-era sedition law.

Tatyana Eatwell, an international law and international human rights lawyer at Doughty Street Chambers in London, one of his lawyers, told VOA her team is calling for more diplomatic attention to his case.

“He’s a British citizen, so therefore we’re representing his interests with respect to engagement with the British government on this case. And really pushing for the U.K. government to do more to assist him and to call out the actions taken against him are in clear violation of international law and his rights under international law,” she said.

Hong Kong has seen a political crackdown since the security law was implemented by Beijing nearly three years ago. China says the legislation has returned stability to Hong Kong.

For years, Lai has advocated for further freedoms and democracy in Hong Kong.

Since his arrest in 2020 Lai has been fighting a series of legal cases.

Lai has already been convicted in some of those cases including two counts of fraud, two separate unlawful assembly charges and received another prison sentence for attending a banned Tiananmen Square vigil that occurred in 2020.

His latest trial is being overseen by three hand-picked national security judges with no jury and is set to begin in September. Lai will be represented by other legal counsel for his defense in Hong Kong.

His legal team in Britain has said parliament should speak out more on his case.

In an interview with a London radio station, Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who leads Lai’s Doughty Street Chambers team, called the British government’s response “disappointing.”

Eatwell told VOA that progress is being made. She said the crackdown on Lai has received brief mentions from Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Rita French, Britain’s global ambassador for human rights and deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva; but she says the British government needs a clearer stance on Lai.

"The foreign secretary made reference to Mr. Lai as an example of a person arrested for exercising his rights to peaceful protests and freedom of expression in his statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council on the 27th of February this year. And Ambassador [Rita] French, also mentioned Mr. Lai’s case by name in the Item 4 statement to the human rights council," she told VOA.

An ‘Item 4’ is normally a statement from a member country about constructive dialogue on an issue for general debate at the U.N.

“These are baby steps to, what they haven’t done is be clear on this, and I think it's really important to be clear. They haven’t condemned the fact that Mr. Lai’s being prosecuted, the very fact his conviction and imprisonment for peaceful protests and they simply haven’t called for his release or condemned what has happened to him. There needs to be a more robust approach and more robust language. Let’s see what they do, we’ve said that we’ll call them out if they don’t," she added.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Britain’s minister of state for the Indo-Pacific region, has met with Lai’s lawyers on more than one occasion, Eatwell added, which has prompted the lawyers to request meetings with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Cleverly. Those requests for meetings are still outstanding.

But despite talks which look promising, there was no mention of Lai 's incarceration in a statement by Cleverly about the British position on China.

“It is concerning that the foreign secretary did not make more of a point of it in that speech, and we had to the minister when we met her earlier this week, about the speech, we would expect to see Mr. Lai’s case mentioned and Hong Kong mentioned in that speech,” Eatwell said.

“They haven’t condemned the fact that Mr. Lai’s being prosecuted, the very fact his conviction and imprisonment for peaceful protests and they simply haven’t called for his release or condemned what has happened to him," she added.

The U.K.’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong recently released a document, Report into Media Freedom in Hong Kong: the case of Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily, calling on the British government to treat his case as a political priority.

The Hong Kong government said it has "strongly disapproved of and firmly rejected" the APPG report in a press release April 25.

Beh Lih Yi, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Beijing is intent on making an example of Lai, but that it won’t work.

“The extent that Beijing and the Hong Kong government are willing to go to keep Jimmy Lai, a 75-year-old man, behind bars is shocking. It is a classic case of 'killing the chicken to scare the monkey,' as the Chinese saying goes. The government is pulling out all the stops to keep Jimmy Lai behind bars to warn other journalists who are fighting to defend independent journalism in Hong Kong - but it will not succeed,” she told VOA.

Hong Kong was once a model for press freedom in the Asia region, but since the security law came into force, at least 12 media outlets have closed, and several journalists have been arrested and criminally charged.

“In five months, Jimmy Lai will be tried under Hong Kong's national security law, which could see him spend the rest of his life in jail. It may be Jimmy Lai who is in the dock, but it is press freedom and the rule of law that will be on trial in Hong Kong,” she said.


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