HONG KONG -- The national security trial of a Hong Kong pro-democracy publisher was further postponed Tuesday to next September as the city awaits Beijing's ruling that could effectively block him from hiring a British defense lawyer.
Jimmy Lai, who was arrested in August 2020 during a crackdown on the city's pro-democracy movement, is fighting charges of endangering national security. The 75-year-old founder of the now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily faces up to life in prison if convicted under a sweeping National Security Law imposed by Beijing.
His high-profile trial, which was originally scheduled to begin on Dec. 1, was already delayed earlier this month after Hong Kong leader John Lee asked China’s top legislative body to decide whether foreign lawyers who don’t normally practice in Hong Kong could be involved in national security cases.
Lee made the request hours after the city's highest court approved Lai's plan to employ Timothy Owen, a veteran human rights lawyer.
If Beijing intervenes, that would mark the sixth time the Communist-ruled government has stepped in despite its promise to respect Hong Kong’s judicial independence and civil liberties for at least 50 years after China took over from Britain in 1997.
Members of China's top lawmaking body are expected to meet in late December. But the law's interpretation was not part of the meeting's agendas reported by China’s official Xinhua News Agency last Friday. Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the body said Monday that in some previous events, new agendas were only being added during the meeting. But Tam Yiu-chung could not tell how the committee would handle Lee's request.
Judge Esther Toh scheduled the trial to begin Sept. 25, 2023, in light of the latest development and taking the schedules of the court and lawyers into account. It is expected to end Nov. 21.
Owen left Hong Kong after the immigration department denied his visa extension while the authorities were still waiting on Beijing's decision, Lai's lawyer said.
Lai is accused of conspiring with others in hostile activities against Hong Kong or China, such as calling for sanctions. He also faces a charge of collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security, and a separate sedition charge under a colonial-era law that is increasingly used to crush dissent.
He was sentenced Saturday to five years and nine months in jail over fraud, after completing a 20-month jail term for his role in unauthorized assemblies.
The U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price condemned the latest sentencing Sunday on Twitter, calling on China's authorities to respect Hong Kong's freedom of expression, including for the press.
In response, the Hong Kong government said the statement was political interference in the city's judicial system, adding the fraud case had nothing to do with press or speech freedoms.
Meanwhile, former Stand News editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen, who was accused of conspiring to publish seditious materials, secured bail Tuesday in a separate court hearing after being held in custody for almost a year. The now-shuttered Stand News was one of the city’s last news media that openly criticized the government after the closure of Apple Daily.
Chung and his former colleague Patrick Lam were charged under a colonial-era sedition law that has been used increasingly to silence critical voices in the city. Lam was granted bail last month.
Hong Kong fell more than 60 places to 148th place in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index released in May. The global media watchdog cited the closure of the two outlets in its rating.