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Politics & Security

EDITORIAL | Can Hong Kong Give Democracy Champion Jimmy Lai a Fair Trial?

Putting Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai on secret trial is symbolic of Communist Chinese authorities' final suppression of the Hong Kong democracy movement.

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Jimmy Lai in an interview with The Sankei Shimbun. (© Sankei by Kinya Fujimoto)

The trial of prominent businessman and democracy advocate Jimmy Lai (Lai Chee-ying) has begun in Hong Kong. Lai is the founder of Apple Daily, a now-defunct Hong Kong newspaper that was highly critical of the Chinese government. He is charged with violating the Hong Kong National Security Law.

Putting Lai on trial is symbolic of the final suppression of the Hong Kong democracy movement by the Communist Chinese authorities. The movement galvanized residents of the city from 2019 to 2020.

Police officers stand guard outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts during the national security trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, in Hong Kong, on December 18, 2023. (©Rwurwea/Lam Yik)

Hong Kong is supposed to be ruled under a "one country, two systems" structure that guarantees it a high degree of autonomy and allows freedom of the press. The Hong Kong National Security Law, enacted at the behest of the Beijing authorities, has taken away these rights. This is unacceptable and the international community should raise its collective voice to condemn Lai's indictment and trial.

China's Strategy Against Lai

Lai is charged with two counts of "colluding with foreign or extraterritorial forces to endanger national security." These are crimes stipulated in the Hong Kong National Security Law. He is also charged with one count of violating the Crimes Ordinance for conspiracy to publish inflammatory publications and other actions.

The charges reflect on both the Hong Kong authorities, who are attacking press freedom, and the Chinese government, which is orchestrating the crackdown. Naturally, Lai should deny all the charges and defiantly fight back against them.

Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of the pro-democracy media Apple Daily, is arrested by a special national security unit under the new Hong Kong Security Law on August 10, 2020. (©Reuters)

Moreover, it is extremely doubtful whether the case will receive a fair hearing in court. The Chinese government also considers Jimmy Lai the main mastermind of the anti-Hong Kong government and anti-Chinese Communist Party demonstrations in 2019. Under the National Security Law, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. Moreover, it is impossible to dispel suspicions that those in power have already decided that Lai will receive a heavy sentence.  

A supporter waves the Union Jack flag outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts during the national security trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai. (©Reuters/Lam Yik)

There Are No Fair Trials in Secret

Additionally, there is concern that the trial proceedings will take place behind closed doors. Article 41 of the Hong Kong National Security Law sets the stage. It stipulates that in cases "involving State secrets or public order…all or part of the trial shall be closed to the media and the public but the judgment shall be delivered in open court."

However, openness of proceedings is an essential principle to ensure a fair trial. In Communist China itself, trials of political prisoners, including democracy activists, are often conducted in secret. Media and diplomats are excluded, of course. But also family members are not allowed to attend. It is absolutely unacceptable for Lai's trial to be closed to the public.

Security personnel stop a supporter who is waving the Union Jack flag outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts. This is during the national security trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai. On December 18, 2023. (©Reuters/Lam Yik)

Lai is a prominent Hong Kong democracy activist as well as a British citizen. The Hong Kong authorities should remember that the international community is extremely interested in Lai's trial.

Since the National Security Law came into effect in June 2020, Hong Kong's international reputation has been steadily declining. Both the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese government must realize that secret trials are unacceptable to the world.

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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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