By Jessie Pang and Edward Cho
(Reuters) – Hong Kong media mogul and democracy advocate Jimmy Lai is on trial for endangering China’s national security.
Lai, 76, has pleaded not guilty to two charges of conspiring to collude with foreign forces – punishable by up to life in prison – and a lesser charge of conspiring to publish seditious material.
A month after the high-profile trial began, the prosecution presented its case on Lai’s alleged collusion with foreign forces, which it said included meetings with U.S. officials in Washington during Donald Trump’s presidency.
The trial is widely seen as a landmark national security case after Beijing imposed new laws on the financial hub in 2020, following months of protests in 2019.
Lai has long criticized the Chinese Communist Party and is the most high-profile figure to be prosecuted under the law. Diplomats are closely monitoring developments.
Hong Kong’s former colonial rulers Britain and the United States have called for Lai’s immediate release, saying the case was politically motivated. Hong Kong officials say Lai will receive a fair trial.
WHAT IS THE PROSECUTION’S CASE?
Prosecutor Anthony Chau called Lai a “radical” and alleged he was at the center of plots to conspire with foreign forces and publish seditious information in the Apple Daily newspaper he founded.
Chau alleged that Lai used “the pretext of fighting for freedom and democracy” to ask foreign countries, particularly the United States, to impose sanctions or engage in other hostile activities against Hong Kong and China.
The court heard that one example of Lai’s alleged collusion was a meeting he held with Trump Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington in July 2019 to discuss a proposed extradition law proposed by the Hong Kong government.
The bill would have allowed Hong Kongers to be sent to mainland China to be tried in courts controlled by the Communist Party. It sparked massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and was withdrawn.
WHO IS THE CHARGE RELATED TO LAI?
The prosecution listed Lai’s agents and intermediaries, including former US Army General Jack Keane, former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the founder of the Hong Kong rights group Watch Benedict Rogers and former US Consul General to Hong Kong James Cunningham. Commenting from outside Hong Kong, Cunningham and Rogers said Lai’s interactions were a normal and legal activity.
Prosecutors also identified a syndicate led by Lai, which they said included activists, his assistant, rights advocates, a Japanese lawmaker and an American financier. The prosecution’s case indicates that these people contacted the United States, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Ireland to impose sanctions or take other hostile measures against Hong Kong and China.
Prosecutors described Lai as “the brains and financial backer at the highest level of command of the union.”
One count of collusion said Lai had ties to a group the prosecution called “Stand With Hong Kong Fight For Freedom” (SWHK), which it said pressured countries for sanctions against China and Hong Kong.
Mark Simon, Lai’s personal assistant and a U.S. citizen, carried out his instructions and reviewed requests for financial support, according to prosecutors.
SWHK invited foreign politicians to come to Hong Kong to observe protests and monitor district elections in 2019, while sponsoring students to meet politicians in Geneva, Berlin, Paris, London and Washington, they said. prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also said Lai used Apple Daily as a platform to conspire with three of its subsidiaries, six former executives linked to the newspaper and staffers Mark Simon, Nick Cheung and Simon Lee and others to collude with foreign forces.
They cited 161 seditious Apple articles. The newspaper ceased publication on June 24, 2021, following a police raid.
The prosecution is currently reading written statements. After that, the defense will challenge the admissibility of testimony from an expert witness, academic Wang Guiguo, on the impact of the sanctions.
A total of 15 witnesses are expected to appear in the prosecution’s box, including Chan Tsz-wah, a paralegal allegedly used by Lai as an intermediary, and Andy Li, co-founder of SWHK.
Lai’s international lawyers appealed earlier this month to the United Nations torture expert over Li’s treatment while he was in prison in mainland China.
The trial is heard by three judges chosen from a panel of national security judges selected by Hong Kong’s chief executive.
(Reporting by Jessie Pang and Edward Cho; writing by Greg Torode: editing by Neil Fullick)
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