A group of UN experts have expressed “grave concern” over the arrest and detention of Jimmy Lai, a former media mogul in Hong Kong who has been charged with violating the territory’s national security law.
In a joint communication sent to the Chinese government, the experts from the UN working group on arbitrary detention and several special rapporteurs focused on human rights said Lai’s arrest and multiple prosecutions related to “his criticism of the Chinese government and his support for democracy in Hong Kong”.
The involvement of such a large group of UN experts represents an escalation in scrutiny of a case that has come to represent the curtailing of freedoms in Hong Kong.
The communication was sent in March but only recently made public after the Chinese government responded on 1 May. In a lengthy reply, the Chinese mission to the UN said: “The national security law was enacted to restore the enjoyment of rights and freedoms which Hong Kong residents had been unable to enjoy during the period of serious violence between June 2019 and early 2020.
“Since the implementation of the national security law, the media landscape in Hong Kong has been as vibrant as ever. As always, the media can exercise their right to monitor the [Hong Kong government’s] work … as long as they are not in violation of the law.”
On Wednesday, Lai’s international legal team filed an “urgent update” with the UN experts, arguing that the Chinese government’s response contained “errors and untruths”.
Lai, a longtime critic of the Chinese Communist party, was arrested in August 2020 and charged with violating Hong Kong’s national security law, which was imposed by Beijing weeks earlier. He is the founder of Apple Daily, a vocal pro-democracy newspaper that was forced to close the following year.
Of the several charges that Lai, 75, is facing, an allegation of colluding with foreign forces carries a potential life sentence. His trial is scheduled for September.
On Monday, Hong Kong’s high court rebuffed an attempt to have the trial against him terminated. Lai’s lawyers had argued that the fact that his trial will be presided over by judges hand-picked by Hong Kong’s chief executive gave the impression of bias.
Lai has also been blocked from appointing a foreign lawyer, Tim Owen KC, a top British barrister. The UN experts said they were “concerned about the intimidation of members of Mr Lai’s defence team and his ability to be represented by lawyer of his choice”.
Lai, a British citizen, has become the most high-profile activist to be detained on national security charges. Another group of pro-democracy politicians, activists and scholars, known as the Hong Kong 47, are already on trial for charges of conspiracy to subvert state power. Their trial is expected to conclude in early June.
Sebastien Lai, Jimmy Lai’s son, said: “My father has been prosecuted and imprisoned for his support for democracy in Hong Kong … Claiming that free speech and the right to protest are alive and well in Hong Kong SAR [special administrative region] does not accord with the reality. If that were the case my father would be a free man.”