The pro-democracy campaigner and publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper faces a life-sentence under the draconian National Security Law
By Benedict Rogers
January 17, 2023
he tragic execution of Alireza Akbari in Iran raises serious questions about what more our government should do to help British nationals in trouble with repressive regimes.
Mr Akbari’s killing has rightly been condemned by the Prime Minister as “a callous and cowardly act, carried out by a barbaric regime”, and the UK has sanctioned Iran’s Prosecutor-General. That is welcome, but it comes too late. Right up until the execution, the furthest Foreign Secretary James Cleverly appeared to go was to tweet that “we are watching” the case closely. Sadly, a tweet – without spelling out any consequences or action – was not enough to prevent a brutal murder.
Right now in Hong Kong, another British national, Jimmy Lai, faces the possibility of spending the remaining years of his life behind bars. The 75 year-old entrepreneur, publisher and pro-democracy campaigner has already been in jail for over three years, on multiple fabricated charges. On Human Rights Day, 10 December, last year, Mr Lai was sentenced to almost six years on trumped-up fraud charges. He has already served two other sentences, one of 13 months for lighting a candle and saying a prayer at a vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and another of 14 months for participating in a peaceful protest in 2019.
But in September this year, his biggest trial – under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law – begins and, if convicted, he could face at least ten years and potentially a life sentence. The Chinese Communist Party regime in Beijing and their quislings in Hong Kong appear determined to keep him behind bars for a long time. Why? For speaking truth to power. Mr Lai has been one of Hong Kong’s most prominent, outspoken and courageous critics of Beijing for the past thirty years. His hugely successful Apple Daily newspaper was fearless in championing human rights and challenging the regime. It became the largest pro-democracy, Chinese-language, mass circulation daily newspaper until it was forcibly shut down by the regime in June 2021.
Mr Lai’s story is remarkable. When he was just 12 years old he escaped from China as a stowaway in a boat from Hong Kong, leaving behind Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” which resulted in mass starvation. He began work as a child labourer in a garment factory, was promoted to factory manager, and then founded his own business, which became Giordano, the hugely successful chain of clothing stores across Asia. In 1990, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he moved into publishing, starting Next Magazine and then, in 1995, Apple Daily.
In 1994, three years before the handover of Hong Kong, Mr Lai became a British citizen. Not a British National Overseas (BNO), which was the scheme established by London as an insurance policy for Hong Kongers, but a full British citizen. Indeed the only passport that he holds is a British one. And yet up until now, the British government appears to have done almost nothing to help.
Last week, Mr Lai’s 28 year-old son Sebastien came to London to advocate for his father. He requested a meeting with the Prime Minister, which was not granted, but he did meet the Foreign Office Minister of State Anne-Marie Trevelyan – which is progress. Yet he says starkly that the United States has done more to speak out for his father than the United Kingdom. No statement has been made by the British government since Mr Lai’s arrest in December 2020, when Dominic Raab spoke out as Foreign Secretary. That is disgraceful.
To be fair to the government, in its latest Six-Monthly Report on Hong Kong published last Friday, Mr Lai’s case is highlighted – in the Foreign Secretary’s Foreword and in the main report. But nothing is said about what will be done. It seems there are too many people in the Foreign Office who think that our only obligation to Hong Kong now is publishing a report every six months.
Yet there is much more that could be done. Demands for consular access to Mr Lai should be persistently made, even if they are not granted. Robust public statements should be made much more frequently. Targeted sanctions should be imposed on Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee and other officials responsible for Mr Lai’s unjust imprisonment.
Representations should be made by the UK in the United Nations, including the Human Rights Council, and the UK should ensure Mr Lai’s case is highlighted in China’s upcoming universal periodic review. More support should be given to Mr Lai’s international legal team, led by Caoilfhionn Gallagher, KC, who have received appalling harassment, including death threats and rape threats, because of their advocacy for him. Ministers should meet them regularly, and the next time Sebastien comes to London he should be met by the Prime Minister, or at least the Foreign Secretary.
When I was denied entry to Hong Kong in 2017, the Foreign Secretary at the time made a strong statement, the Chinese ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office and the incident was raised in both Houses of Parliament. Similarly, when I was threatened with a jail term by the Hong Kong Police Force, accused of violating Hong Kong’s National Security Law, the Foreign Secretary issued an excellent statement. If my government can – as it should – defend me and the UK-based charity I co-founded and lead, why is it not doing much more for British citizens facing far, far graver dangers?
It should not have required Richard Ratcliffe to go on hunger strike outside the Foreign Office to get the UK to do more to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It should not have needed the family of British-Egyptian human rights activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, in jail in Cairo, to hold a vigil outside Downing Street to secure Rishi Sunak’s commitment to raise his case. And it should not have taken Sebastien Lai to come to London to plead for help for his father. These are British nationals, and our government should be pulling out all the stops to secure their freedom.
Over the past five years I have had the privilege of getting to know Jimmy Lai and his family. Their courage and commitment is inspirational. Mr Lai has properties all over the world, and could at any point have left Hong Kong for a comfortable, secure life in London, New York, Canada or Taiwan. But he chose to stay and be imprisoned for his beliefs. I do not want him to die in jail. Britain has a responsibility to ensure that he does not.