Hong Kong: As Jimmy Lai pleads not guilty, evidence brought against him highlights arbitrary nature of his national security trial

On 2 January, Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai pleaded not guilty to all charges brought against him in a national security trial that opened in December. Evidence presented by the prosecution - including naming further co-conspirators -  demonstrates the spurious nature of the charges against him.

“Not guilty” is what Jimmy Lai, publisher and founder of independent Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily responded on 2 January to the charges brought against him of “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces” and “seditious publications”on the sixth day of his national security trial, which bears significance for press freedom worldwide. The proceedings, held without a jury and scheduled to last for 80 days, had been adjourned over the Christmas holidays.

Jimmy Lai is accused of having used Apple Daily as a platform to stir up unrest and organise the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations. As evidence of this “crime,” on 3 January the prosecution presented a message Lai sent to Benedict Rogers – the head of Hong Kong Watch, an NGO dedicated to upholding the rule of law in Hong Kong – to request his help in getting a comment from the territory’s former governor on the controversial 2019 extradition bill that caused widespread protests in the territory.

“These latest developments in the ludicrous case against Jimmy Lai are highly worrying and further demonstrate the spurious nature of these charges. Targeting human rights defenders in other parts of the world as ‘co-conspirators’ for doing their jobs exposing human rights abuses in Hong Kong is further evidence of the Chinese regime’s efforts to control information beyond its borders. It is imperative that the international community maintains vigilance over this case and condemns these egregious violations, which have global implications and impact us all.

Rebecca Vincent
RSF’s Director of Campaigns

Prosecutors also cited over 150 Apple Daily articles as examples of “seditious publications” and named several human rights defenders with whom Lai had been in touch in past years as “co-conspirators” in colluding with foreign forces. Those listed include Benedict Rogers; Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an international group of legislators critical of China's human rights record; Bill Browder, head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign; and Finn Lau, activist and executive director of exiled Hong Kong online media The Points.

Jimmy Lai, detained in a maximum security jail since December 2020, has already been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on trumped-up fraud charges. He previously received a 20-month sentence for attending four “unauthorised'” pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020. For the past 25 years, Lai has fought to uphold the values of media pluralism and press freedom in Hong Kong. His commitment to such principles was recently recognised by the French city of Lyon, which granted him honorary citizenship. 

In December 2023, a delegation from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) travelled to Hong Kong to monitor the opening of the historic national security trial against Jimmy Lai, queuing from 5 am to secure places in the courtroom. Foreign diplomats as well as members of Lai's family were among the hundred or so people present that day in court.

The national security law has been routinely used as a pretext by the Chinese regime to prosecute journalists and press freedom defenders in Hong Kong, including Lai and six staff of Apple Daily, while the newspaper itself was shut down – a move seen as the final nail in the coffin of press freedom in Hong Kong. 

The territory ranks 140th out of 180 in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index, having plummeted down from 18th place in the span of two decades. China itself ranks 179th and is the world's largest jailer of journalists and press freedom defenders with at least 121 detained, including 12 in Hong Kong. 

179/ 180
Score : 22.97
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