A Hong Kong court has postponed the national security trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai until September 2023, after a hearing revealed that Lai’s British lawyer had been refused a visa extension and was forced to leave.
Lai’s trial was due to start on Tuesday, but has faced delays, including attempts by the Hong Kong government to bar his British lawyer Tim Owens from representing him.
The new trial dates are September 25 to November 21 next year, but questions remain over his legal representation.
The trial was due to start last month but was postponed after the court heard that Hong Kong’s immigration department had withheld Owen’s application for an extension of his work visa. On Tuesday, the court heard that the request had been denied and that Owens had left Hong Kong, according to local media.
Prosecutors had previously sought to exclude Owens from the case, arguing there was a national security risk in having foreign lawyers working on national security cases. After Hong Kong’s highest court rejected the request, the Hong Kong government appealed to Beijing’s highest legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) to “interpret” its judgment.
On Tuesday, the court heard that the NPSCS did not respond to a request to rule on whether foreign lawyers – who are authorized to represent Hong Kong clients under special circumstances – can work on cases of national security.
Last week, Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s deputy representative on the Standing Committee, said banning foreign lawyers from working on national security cases “corresponds to the spirit of legislation and the logic of national security.” , reported Hong Kong Free Press. Tam also said national security defendants could be sent to the mainland for trial if they could not find a lawyer in Hong Kong.
Tam has previously suggested that the defendants could be extradited to the mainland for trial “if the (Chinese) government deems it necessary”.
Lai, a 75-year-old democracy activist and founder of the Apple Daily tabloid, faces potentially life in prison for conspiring to collide with foreign forces, subject to a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing with backing from the Hong Government of Kong in 2020.
Lai had recently served time in prison for convictions related to protests, but on Saturday he was sentenced to an additional five years and nine months for fraud, related to a contract dispute. Supporters had suggested the conviction – for one of his companies breaching the terms of a lease – was politically motivated. The judge, Stanley Chan, said the case was “a simple case of fraud” and was not related to politics or freedom of the press.