ARTICLE 19 reiterates its call for the immediate and unconditional release of Jimmy Lai, pro-democracy activist and publisher of Apple Daily, and urges the Hong Kong government to end its campaign of judicial harassment against him, and others, under the National Security Law.
Detained since December 2020, Lai was set to begin trial today, 1 December, for ‘collusion with foreign forces’ under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law (NSL), imposed by China in 2020, which carries the maximum punishment of a life sentence. The trial has now been postponed until 13 December as Hong Kong awaits Beijing’s decision whether foreign lawyers can serve in national security cases. A breach of judicial independence, this follows a request for Beijing’s intervention earlier in the week from Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee.
On Thursday, 1 December, in a further blow to judicial independence, Hong Kong’s immigration department also refused a working visa for Timothy Owens, the British human rights lawyer who the Hong Kong High Court had previously approved to represent Jimmy Lai.
Lai, 74, is a founder of the now defunct Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s most popular independent newspapers, which was forced to shut in June 2021. For decades, Lai has been a prominent supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and a vocal critic of the Chinese government. He has been a British citizen since 1996.
Lai has been frequently targeted by the authorities for his activism. He has already been sentenced to 20 months in prison for his participation in pro-democracy protests between 2019 and 2020.
Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager at ARTICLE 19, said:
‘For years, Jimmy Lai has courageously spoken truth to power. An advocate for media freedom, democracy and the right to protest, his words and actions have made him a target of those in Hong Kong and Beijing whose cowardice leads them to believe that crushing dissent is a show of strength. In reality, it is the desperate tactic of the weak.
Jimmy Lai is a British citizen who faces spending the rest of his life behind bars for exercising and defending his human rights and those of all Hong Kongers. The UK government should be prepared to act decisively, in light of this appalling attack on the freedom of one of its citizens and indeed the entire population of Hong Kong. This includes openness to Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions on Hong Kong officials who continue to violate human rights, especially under the repressive National Security Law.
‘Jimmy Lai is also a businessman. For British and international companies and financial institutions, there can be no more business as usual. Last month, Hong Kong hosted the Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit, where Chief Executive John Lee absurdly claimed that ‘the worst is behind us’, but as long as the National Security Law remains in place and entrepreneurs and journalists are terrorised into silence, the worst is far from over; it is the new normal. The private sector must reconcile its responsibility to respect human rights with its ongoing business interests in Hong Kong.’
Hong Kong, once lauded for its freedoms contrasting mainland China, has experienced the single biggest 10-year decline in ARTICLE 19’s Global Expression Report: since 2011, its score has dropped by 58 points. In 2022, Hong Kong ranked 127 out of 161 countries in the ‘in crisis’ category.
This decline has, in a large part, been driven by the enactment of the NSL. As of March 2022, 196 people have been arrested under the NSL. More than 120 of them have been prosecuted, with a 100 percent conviction rate.
Over the past two years, the Hong Kong government has dramatically curtailed press freedom in Hong Kong. Since the imposition of the NSL, nearly all independent media outlets have been forced to close. The closure of Apple Daily was swiftly followed by the closure of Stand News, another pro-democracy outlet. Two former Stand News editors have been charged with ‘sedition’ and their trial began last month. They face up to two years in jail if convicted.
ARTICLE 19 and Hong Kong Watch noted in their joint submission to the UN Human Rights Committee that numerous rights have been restricted under the NSL, from increasing threats to the freedom of religion or belief, restrictions of internet freedoms, severe curtailment of freedom of expression, and an outright assault on the independent press and academic freedom – all in the name of national security. For these reasons, in its July concluding observations, the Committee enjoined Hong Kong to ‘take concrete steps to repeal the current National Security Law and, in the meantime, refrain from applying the Law’.
‘Hong Kong must put an emergency halt to this severe backtracking in rights, immediately and unconditionally release Jimmy Lai, and others who have been arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned,’ said Caster.
‘If Hong Kong refuses to repeal the National Security Law and continues with these sham trials, it should expect increasing political and economic consequences.’