February 7, 2023

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Jimmy Lai Trial: Hong Kong urges Beijing to decide on the use of foreign lawyers in national security cases

Hong Kong Eureka News Now —

The Hong Kong leader said he would ask Beijing to determine whether foreign lawyers can work in the city on national security cases, a move with implications for the upcoming trial of jailed pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai.

The announcement came Monday, hours after the Court of Final Appeal (CFA), the city’s highest court, upheld a lower court’s ruling allowing British lawyer Timothy Owen to represent Lai in a landmark national security case that began on April 20 should start Thursday.

Lai, 74, is Beijing’s most high-profile critic, charged under Hong Kong’s comprehensive national security law and facing a life sentence on charges of collaborating with foreign forces. He also faces indictment under a colonial-era sedition law.

The government had sought a “blanket ban” on foreign lawyers working on national security cases, except in exceptional circumstances that would have resulted in Owen being removed from the case.

As the CFA ruling went against the government, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said Monday he would ask China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) to intervene.

According to a statement, Lee wants Beijing to decide whether lawyers “not qualified to practice generally in Hong Kong” can participate in national security cases.

Lee’s move follows repeated attempts by the Hong Kong Justice Department to block Owen from representing Lai.

“Currently, there are no effective means to ensure that a foreign lawyer does not have a conflict of interest based on his (national interest),” Lee said at a news conference. “Nor are there any means to ensure that he has not been coerced, compromised or controlled in any way by any foreign government, association or person.”

This would be the sixth time the NPCSC has provided an interpretation of Hong Kong’s laws since the city was handed over to China from Britain in 1997.

Lee said the government will seek an adjournment of Lai’s trial during the trial.

Lai, whose pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily was forced to close after a police raid last year, has been in custody for nearly two years. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison in 2021 for taking part in an unauthorized protest.

In August, the tycoon requested that Owen be hired to conduct his defense, sparking a legal debate over whether foreign lawyers should provide legal representation in national security law cases.

Since the handover, Hong Kong has maintained the common law system inherited from British rule.

Its independent judiciary and rule of law have long been recognized as key to the city’s success as a global financial center. The city’s legal system allows judges from abroad to sit in the city’s courts, and attorneys from other common law jurisdictions may work on cases where their expertise is needed.

However, China’s ruling Communist Party struggled to adjust Hong Kong to its authoritarian rule, bypassing the city’s lawmakers to implement the security law in response to anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019.

Cases under the legislation are handled by a special branch of the Hong Kong police force and designated national security judges, raising concerns about Beijing’s potential influence on proceedings.

The Hong Kong government has repeatedly dismissed criticism that the law has stifled freedoms, instead claiming it restored order to the city after the 2019 protests.