Hong Kong court lets UK lawyer defend media tycoon Jimmy Lai

HONG KONG (AP) — A Hong Kong court on Wednesday upheld the decision to let a veteran British lawyer defend pro-democracy newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai at his upcoming national security trial.

Lai, the 74-year-old founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily, was arrested after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law to crack down on dissent following widespread protests in 2019. He faces three charges of conspiracies to collude with a foreign country and a separate sedition charge. His trial is expected to begin on Dec. 1.

The National Security Law criminalizes acts of succession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. If convicted, Lai faces the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Timothy Owen, a London-based legal veteran who specializes in criminal and human rights law, was granted court approval last month to represent Lai despite objections from the city’s secretary of justice and the Hong Kong Bar Association.

At that time, the judge said the case would be important to “the development of local jurisprudence on the application of the National Security Law and the protection of the freedom of expression,” adding it was in public interest to have an eminent overseas specialist like Owen involved at the trial.

Facing an appeal from the justice secretary, judges at the Court of Appeal endorsed the previous ruling on Wednesday, saying public perception of fairness in the trial was important to the administration of justice.

“The court must adopt a flexible and sensible approach to arrive at a decision that would best suit the public interest in this application,” they said.

Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to China in 1997, uses the same common law jurisdiction as the U.K. Apart from having overseas judges serve in the city’s courts, lawyers from other jurisdictions practicing common law can also work within the city’s legal system, especially when their expertise are needed for some cases.

Owen, who works in Matrix Chambers, has appeared in previous Hong Kong’s high-profile cases. He represented British banker Rurik Jutting, who was convicted for murdering two women, and a police officer who appealed his conviction for assaulting a pro-democracy activist during 2014 protests.

Lai is already serving a 20-month prison sentence for his role in unauthorized assemblies. He’s also expecting a sentencing over his fraud conviction on Nov. 24. Those charges are separate from the national security law.

His legal team earlier asked the United Nations to investigate his imprisonment and multiple criminal charges as “legal harassment” to punish him for speaking out.

The enactment of the security law has led to the arrests of many prominent democracy activists. It has also damaged faith in the future of the international financial hub, with increasing numbers of young professionals responding to the shrinking freedoms by moving abroad.