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China says Hong Kong boss John Lee, not the courts, can veto Jimmy Lai’s lawyer

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

PRESS RELEASE: China says Hong Kong boss John Lee, not the courts, can veto Jimmy Lai’s lawyer in another blow to rule of law

30 December 2022 China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee has ruled that Hong Kong leader John Lee or the Committee for Safeguarding National Security, and not the courts, has final authority to decide if a foreign lawyer can defend Jimmy Lai. Mr. Lai is now unlikely to be represented by London-based barrister Timothy Owen. This is another nail in the coffin for rule of law in Hong Kong.

The decision comes after the government suffered four consecutive losses in court. Mr. Lai, who founded the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, had his national security trial delayed at the beginning of December while authorities scrambled to change the rules. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee asked Beijing for help to keep Mr Lai from using the lawyer of his choice. Earlier this month, Mr Lai was sentenced to an unprecedented five years and nine months imprisonment on two counts of trumped-up fraud charges relating to the sublease of his newspaper premises.

The NPC decision to allow John Lee or the unelected Committee for Safeguarding National Security to veto Lai’s lawyer follows the end of jury trials in National Security Law cases and the new practice of holding defendants in jail indefinitely. Like this latest decision, both are violations of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs the city. Defendants’ fates are in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) handpicked judges.

This latest decision nakedly shows China’s vision of its new world order, one where its desire for absolute power erases promised individual rights and international human rights norms.

Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation President, Mark Clifford, said:

“It’s outrageous that after four failed attempts to deny Jimmy Lai his choice of legal counsel, John Lee and Beijing would go to such lengths simply to prevent a man from having his own lawyer. Why is John Lee so desperate to prevent London-based human rights lawyer Tim Owen from appearing in a Hong Kong court on behalf of Jimmy Lai? What pressure will the Chinese Communist Party now put on Mr Lai’s Hong Kong-based lawyers?

“This decision puts the rule of a single man – a man with no popular mandate – above the rule of law. This ruling shows that Hong Kong’s Basic Law is not worth the paper it’s written on. The idea that a fair trial for Jimmy Lai can take place in Hong Kong is a fantasy.”

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