A Hong Kong court Friday rejected an appeal by prominent pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai to toss out a sedition charge against him.
Lai’s lawyer Robert Pang argued that the charge should be dropped because the prosecution did not introduce it within six months of the alleged crime taking place.
Authorities brought the charge against Lai four days after the deadline, Pang said.
Lai, a pro-democracy figure and publisher of the now-shuttered media outlet Apple Daily, is standing trial in Hong Kong on charges of sedition and accusations under the region’s national security law that he colluded with foreign forces.
The three government-appointed judges overseeing the trial, which started Monday, said that when it came to the sedition charge, a time limit did not apply.
The alleged conspiracy was “a continuing offense and therefore the time limitation did not start to run until after the last date of the alleged conspiracy,” the judges said.
“The court ruled that the prosecution of the sedition charge against the defendants was not time-barred,” the judges said in a summary of their judgment. “Therefore, the court had jurisdiction to try the defendants on the sedition charge.”
Prosecutors claim that Lai and Apple Daily published a total of 161 seditious articles between April 2019 and June 2021.
Jonathan Price, a barrister from London’s Doughty Street Chambers that makes up Lai’s international legal team, said the ruling Friday shows the true intent of the case.
“[The] ruling makes explicit — just in case anyone had been left in any doubt — that Jimmy Lai is being prosecuted for nothing more sinister than conspiracy to commit journalism,” Price said in a statement.
By pinning the date of Lai’s alleged crimes to the date Apple Daily ceased work, “the prosecution has shown its hand,” Price said. “Lai is in prison for daring to publish an independent newspaper in a country which no longer tolerates a free press.”
Hong Kong’s national security bureau did not respond to VOA’s request for comment this week.
It has previously dismissed claims the national security law is limiting press freedom. Hong Kong’s former chief executive Carrie Lam previously said the Apple Daily case was about “a suspicious act of endangering national security,” not media freedom.
Mark Sabah, director of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, condemned the latest development.
“For the Hong Kong authorities, Jimmy Lai must be found guilty at all costs, and he must be charged with as many offenses as possible. This trial is not about Jimmy Lai, it is about China imposing its authoritarian rule on Hong Kong,” he said in a statement on X.
Considered Hong Kong’s last independent newspaper, the Apple Daily was forced to close in June 2021 after police froze millions of its assets, raided its office, and arrested six top editors.
Lai, a British national, is already serving a sentence of five years and nine months in a separate fraud case. He has been detained since his 2020 arrest.
Outside the courthouse Friday, activist Alexandra Wong, better known as Grandma Wong, told VOA, “It’s been difficult for Mr. Lai. He is almost 10 years older than me.
“We have to come to support him,” she said.
Maria, a woman in her forties from Germany who gave only her first name, was the first in line to enter the courtroom Friday, to observe the trial.
“It’s the first time I’m attending the court trial. I’ve always wanted to,” she told VOA. “I think different national security trials here are very important.”
Western governments, as well as human rights and press freedom groups, have called for Lai’s immediate release.
“As a prominent and outspoken journalist and publisher, Jimmy Lai has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association,” British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said in a statement Sunday.
In response, a spokesperson at China’s embassy in the U.K. said, “We firmly oppose and strongly deplore U.K. politicians’ appalling acts of endorsing Jimmy Lai.” The spokesperson went on to urge the U.K. to “stop sheltering anti-China, Hong Kong destabilizers” and “stop smearing the national security law.”
The United States government has also called for Lai’s release.
Since coming into effect in 2020, Hong Kong’s national security law has been used to take legal action against more than 250 people, including activists, lawmakers and protesters.
Hong Kong introduced the law after mass protests in 2019.
Lai, whose trial is expected to last about 80 days, is among the most high-profile people to face charges under the law.
His son Sebastien told VOA he has no faith in Hong Kong’s judiciary system.
“This is a 76-year-old man who’s been held in a maximum-security prison in solitary confinement,” Sebastien Lai said. “There’s no chance that he’ll get a fair trial. The authorities have very deliberately decided to destroy their legal system to target pro-democracy protesters.”
The trial is taking place without a jury and with three government-appointed judges, Sebastien Lai said. The Hong Kong government has also prevented Lai’s choice of counsel, British lawyer Timothy Owen, from representing him.
“So, there’s no semblance of a fair trial,” the younger Lai said.
Lai’s trial is adjourned until January 2.
VOA’s Iris Tong contributed to this report. Some information in this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.