a tycoon, a lawsuit and the erosion of the rule of law in Hong Kong

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

Even before his incarceration, Jimmy Lai knew he faced a bleak future, but insisted on championing his cause.

“Without a fight, we have no hope. We don’t know when we will win, but we are so sure that we are on the right side of history and time is on our side,” said the founder of pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily. Guardian in August 2020 while out on bail, five days after his arrest on foreign collusion allegations.

Beijing’s national security law had gone into effect two months earlier. Police had raided Apple Daily twice and arrested Lai. The company’s funds were frozen the following year, leading to the newspaper’s closure.

Now Lai is likely to spend the rest of her life in prison.

His case has been held up as a symbol of the Chinese authorities’ ruthless determination to crush popular influence beyond their control and to use the law and the justice system as tools to suppress “reactionary” forces.

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“The authorities want to make sure he is ruined”

Lai, a 75-year-old British citizen, has been behind bars since December 2020 for his involvement in the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unauthorized gatherings. He was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on Saturday for fraud for breaching a rental agreement, but faces far more serious charges of conspiracy to publish seditious material and colluding with foreign powers in under a national security law imposed by China in 2020.

Loosely defined, the sweeping national security law prohibits acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with foreign and outside forces”, with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for those convicted.

Following the Hong Kong government’s attempt to bar British lawyer Tim Owen from representing Lai, his trial – originally scheduled for this month – has been adjourned to September 2023. If found guilty by a panel of three hand-picked judges acting without a jury warrant, Lai faces a life sentence.

The treatment of media mogul Jimmy Lai is being used as a warning to others, observers believe. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Critics say Lai’s treatment is completely contrary to the spirit of the rule of law and reflects the authorities’ determination to lock up the top Chinese critic permanently.

“China uses him as an example to threaten others… for maximum deterrent effect,” says Sang Pu, a Hong Kong lawyer and political commentator now based in Taiwan.

The legal process in Lai’s case – from his prosecution, his prolonged detention, the appointment of national security judges and the denial of a foreign lawyer – was part of a “show trial” manipulated by China, says Blood.

“Lai was Hong Kong’s number one civil society figure…the authorities want to make sure he is completely ruined,” he says.

Hong Kong leader John Lee asked Beijing’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, last month to clarify whether foreign lawyers can participate in national security cases. Meanwhile, authorities denied Owen a visa extension and he was forced to leave.

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A delegate from Hong Kong on the committee, Tam Yiu-chung, said banning foreign lawyers from working on national security cases “corresponds to the legislative spirit and logic of the national security law”. and that national security defendants could be sent to the mainland for trial if they cannot find a lawyer in Hong Kong.

“was not only a travesty of justice but also a violation of his human rights”.

“Hong Kong’s judicial independence has been undermined by national security…and national security can completely trump basic human rights,” he said.

William Nee, researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, based in the United States, says: “Under international human rights standards, Jimmy Lai had the right to run a newspaper, criticize the government and even seek efforts from other governments to address human rights abuses in Hong Kong. Kong. Under the umbrella of “national security”, Chinese authorities are trying to put a veneer of legality on draconian censorship and a ban on international advocacy.

But the Chinese Communist Party has a very different understanding of rights and justice, and its roots go back decades, before the founding of the People’s Republic. Only a few months before he took power, Mao Zedong wrote in June 1949 that if “the people” obeying the party were to enjoy democracy and rights, the dictatorship must be imposed on the “reactionaries”.

“Suppress them… If they speak or act unruly, they will be quickly punished,” Mao wrote. “Democracy for the people and the dictatorship over the reactionaries is the democratic dictatorship of the people.”

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