22 December 2023 - The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation (CFHK Foundation) has condemned the upholding of a “sedition” charge against pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai, announced in Hong Kong this morning.
On Monday, following numerous unjust delays and nearly 1100 days in detention, the National Security Law (NSL) trial of British citizen Jimmy Lai began amid a heavy police presence.
On Tuesday Judge Esther Toh, one of the three judges handpicked by the Hong Kong Government to oversee the trial, announced that proceedings would be adjourned until Friday morning, when a verdict on the sedition charge relating to over 160 published articles, would be handed down.
Under Hong Kong law, the statute of limitations for prosecuting sedition offences is six months. Defence lawyer Robert Pang had argued that the charge ought to be dropped as Apple Daily printed its final edition on 24 June 2021 and the charge would have expired on 24 December. Mr Lai's inaugural court appearance on the charge related to allegedly “seditious publications” was on 28 December 2021, several days after the “time bar” expired.
However, the hand-picked judges ruled on Friday that the prosecution had filed the charge in time as the information of the “sedition” charge had been laid at the Court on 14 December 2021, ten days prior to the deadline.
Judge Toh told the Court: "We are of the view that the charge is not time-barred. So the application of the defence must fail." Judges did not read out the full reasons why the charge was upheld but said that an explanatory document was available to the press and parties.
Expected to last up to 80 days, the sham trial will also see Mr Lai facing two counts of conspiring to collude with foreign forces under the Beijing-imposed national security law, along with one count of conspiracy to publish “seditious” materials under a colonial-era sedition law. The trial is expected to continue on 2 January. Mr Lai has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Beijing imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong in June 2020 following pro-democracy protests. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts – broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. If convicted, offenders could face up to life imprisonment. So far, National Security Law trials have a 100% conviction rate.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, lead international lawyer for Jimmy Lai, said:
“Today's ruling is merely a small, predictable part of a much bigger picture: Jimmy Lai being targeted with 'lawfare' for his journalism and his peaceful pro-democracy, pro-human rights, anti-corruption campaigning. For over three years he has been imprisoned for his work. It is no surprise that every legal weapon at the authorities' disposal is being used against him - both a colonial-era sedition law and a tailor-made National Security Law, which was designed by Beijing to silence Jimmy Lai and others who dare to speak truth to power. The UK must take robust action now to stop this charade and secure Mr Lai's immediate and unconditional release.”
Mark Sabah, Director of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation said:
“Is anyone entirely surprised by this decision? I think it’s clear for everyone to see that these are not serious court proceedings. Instructions are clearly being followed by the judges, who are taking direction from elsewhere. This is the same tactic used in Russia’s courts against its own dissidents and opposition figures. For the Hong Kong authorities, Jimmy Lai must be found guilty at all costs, and he must be charged with as many offences as possible. This trial is not about Jimmy Lai, it is about China imposing its authoritarian rule on Hong Kong. Legal organisations around the world should start speaking out against the corrupt legal system in Hong Kong and fighting for the preservation of rule of law and against rule by law.”