Hong Kong court dismisses pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai's legal bid to fight for UK lawyer

FILE - Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded local newspaper Apple Daily, is about to wear a face mask before entering a court in Hong Kong on May 5, 2020. A Hong Kong court on Friday, May 19, 2023 dismissed the jailed pro-democracy publisher's legal bid in his fight to use a British lawyer in his landmark national security trial. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File) (Kin Cheung, Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

HONG KONG – A Hong Kong court rejected an activist publisher’s latest effort Friday to use a British lawyer to defend him against national security charges as Beijing tries to crush a pro-democracy movement.

Jimmy Lai, the 75-year-old founder of the now-defunct newspaper Apple Daily, faces up to life in prison if convicted. In November, the city’s top court approved Lai hiring veteran lawyer Timothy Owen for the case, but the city’s national security authorities blocked that.

Lai and most of Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy activists were arrested after Beijing imposed a national security law on the former British colony following massive anti-government protests in 2019. The political saga over Lai’s choice of lawyer is widely seen as part of the city’s crackdown on dissidents after the protests.

On Friday, Judge Jeremy Poon rejected Lai’s request to overturn the committee for safeguarding national security’s decision. Poon ruled courts have no jurisdiction over the committee under the security law.

The political row over Lai's lawyer began in November when the government voiced objection to it and asked Beijing to step in soon after the top court gave its approval.

China’s top legislative body didn’t directly rule whether foreign lawyers who do not normally practice in the city could handle national security cases. But it said the power to decide belongs to the city’s leader and the committee.

Critics said Beijing’s intervention damaged the city’s judicial independence, which was promised to the city when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The committee concluded that allowing Owen to represent Lai would likely pose national security risks and advised the director of immigration to refuse any new work visa applications by Owen that involve representing the media tycoon in the case. The director of immigration said his department would act in accordance with that advice.

Lai’s lawyers filed an application in April for judicial review, asking the court to quash the committee and director’s decisions. They argued that the committee’s duties relate to matters of general policy and coordinating “major works and significant operations.”

“There is no power or jurisdiction to determine specific questions arising from cases, let alone overturn judicial decisions,” they wrote in the application.

Robert Pang, one of Lai’s lawyers, insisted in an earlier hearing that the committee had overstepped its powers, saying the court had the power and the duty to ensure that the law was properly applied.

But Poon ruled Friday that the decision is fully within the committee’s power under the security law, as “interpreted by the interpretation," and the supervisory power over the committee is reserved to China's central government exclusively.

The courts don't hold power over such matters "because they clearly fall outside the courts' constitutional competence assigned to them," he wrote.

Lai’s trial, originally scheduled to begin Dec. 1, was postponed until September as the city awaited Beijing’s decision.

He is accused of conspiring with others to call for sanctions or blockades, or engage in hostile activities against Hong Kong or China. He also faces a charge of collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security, and a separate sedition charge under a colonial-era law that is increasingly used to crush dissent.

Lai was sentenced to five years and nine months for a separate fraud case in December.

As of Tuesday, more than 100 publishers and editors around the world — including 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureates Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa — have signed a joint statement calling for his immediate release, according to the Reporters without Borders, which coordinated the move.

But the government, without naming any groups, condemned what it called wrongful attempt to interfere with the city’s judicial proceedings under the pretext of press freedom. It insisted the prosecution of Lai was completely unrelated to the issue of press freedom.

Last week, Hong Kong lawmakers also passed an amendment to a law granting the city’s leader the power to bar overseas lawyers from handling national security cases. Critics said the changes will leave defendants with even fewer choices when they look for legal representation in some of the city’s most controversial cases.

The National Security Law criminalizes acts of succession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. It has led to the arrests of many prominent democracy activists and damaged faith in the future of the international financial hub.