Jimmy Lai: Hong Kong pro-democracy activist's national security trial begins without jury

Media tycoon and pro-democracy supporter Jimmy Lai faces a life-sentence in prison as his national security trial begins, as Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports

When a counter terrorism unit and their armoured vehicle moved into position, that was the signal that the prison van carrying Jimmy Lai was about to arrive.

More than 1,000 police officers, including a bomb disposal unit, were deployed to the West Kowloon court for the start of this high-profile national security trial.

The only threat to order, on the opening day, came from the well-known pro-democracy protester Grandma Wong. She was quickly surrounded and, still flying her union jack, was ushered away from the premises.

Despite being arrested for taking part in unlawful protests, the 67-year-old told us it was important to stand up for the truth and support Mr Lai. She stood in a police pen waving her British flag for the rest of the day.

Well-known pro-democracy protester, Grandma Wong, showed her support for Jimmy Lai outside court. Credit: ITV News

People had queued from the early hours to get a seat in the public gallery and many tried to hide their identity from the cameras, fearing support for Jimmy Lai could get them in trouble. The 76-year-old is a popular figure, admired for the stand he has taken and all he did to fight for freedoms and democracy in Hong Kong. Coming to court to support him is one of the few remaining ways people have to safely show they support what he stands for.

Mr Lai was a Hong Kong media tycoon and prominent pro-democracy supporter. His newspaper the Apple Daily constantly enraged the Chinese authorities for supporting Hong Kong’s protests and the city’s pro-democracy movement.

He was arrested just weeks after Beijing imposed the National Security Law in 2020. His newspaper offices were raided and inevitably his business and the Apple Daily publication, were forced to close.

Mr Lai is facing charges of collusion with foreign forces and conspiracy to publish, sell or distribute seditious materials. If he is found guilty, he could face a life sentence.

His son Sebastien Lai, lives in exile, unable to return to Hong Kong, and he has travelled the world campaigning for his father’s freedom.

He told ITV News he worries about his father’s health. Mr Lai recently turned 76 behind bars and Sebastien said: “Every day he's in jail, he essentially risks his life.”

People queued outside in support of Jimmy Lai, desperate to get a seat inside the court. Credit: ITV News

Before the start of the trial Sebastien met with the British Foreign Secretary and received the backing of the UK Government. Lord Cameron has called on the authorities to release Mr Lai and described his prosecution as ‘’politically motivated’’.

Mr Lai is a British passport holder and could have fled to the safety of the UK to avoid arrest, but instead he has spent the last three years in a high security prison. He is being treated as a terrorist, kept mostly in solitary confinement.

He has already been charged for his prominent role in the 2019 protests and for fraud charges related to the lease of his newspaper property.

The Chinese Government has condemned Mr Lai as a ringleader of the protests in 2019. In a statement on Monday, the Foreign Ministry described him as an agent of anti-China forces. Responding to condemnations from the UK and the US governments, the Communist Party accused Westminster and Washington of “naked political manipulation” and double standards.

When Mr Lai entered the courtroom on Monday morning, we could see that he had lost more weight, but he sat tall, in his grey suit and waved at the public gallery, acknowledging those who had come to support him.

When the prosecution begins its case, he is going to have to listen to his ex-employees testify against him. Several have already pleaded guilty to national security charges and hope to get lighter sentences by giving evidence against their former boss.

Mr Lai was denied bail while awaiting trial under the National security law, and the British lawyer he chose to represent him has been blocked by the Hong Kong authorities.

Human rights organisations have questioned the fairness of this trial which will be heard without a jury. Mr Lai’s fate is in the hands of three judges who were handpicked by the government under new laws also imposed by China.

The trial is expected to last for 80 days.

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