The imminent trial of detained pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai could be affected by Hong Kong’s leader saying he will seek Beijing to assess whether foreign lawyers can serve on national security issues in the city.
On Monday, hours before a momentous national security hearing was about to begin on Thursday, the Court of Final Appeal (CFA), the city’s highest court, confirmed a lower court’s ruling to allow British attorney Timothy Owen to represent Lai.
With a maximum penalty of life in jail, Lai, 74, is the most prominent opponent of Beijing accused under Hong Kong’s expansive national security statute.
A sedition accusation from the colonial era has also been filed against him.
The government wanted Owen removed from the case because of their push for a “blanket prohibition” on foreign lawyers participating in national security cases, barring extraordinary circumstances.
When the CFA ruling went against the government, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said Monday he would ask China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) to intervene.
It has been reported that Lee wants Beijing to rule on whether or not “not qualified to practice generally” lawyers in Hong Kong can participate in national security proceedings.
The Department of Justice in Hong Kong has tried unsuccessfully to stop Owen from representing Lai. Therefore Lee has acted in response.
Lee told a news conference, “At this time, there are no practical measures to assure that a foreign counsel will not have a conflict of interest because of his (national interest).
We also have no way of knowing if foreign countries, organizations, or individuals have attempted to exert undue influence over him.
Since Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to China in 1997, the NPCSC has issued six interpretations of Hong Kong’s laws. Lee stated that the government would seek a delay in Lai’s trial.
After a police raid last year, Lai’s pro-democracy daily, Apple Daily, was forced to close, and he has been detained in detention ever since.
For his part in an unlawful demonstration, a court in 2021 sentenced him to thirteen months in prison.
The tycoon’s desire to retain Owen to head his defense in August prompted a legal dispute over whether foreign lawyers should take up counsel in national security law issues.
Regulatory framework for national security
Hong Kong’s standard law system has been kept intact since the handover because it was a legacy of the British administration.
There is a widespread belief that the city’s status as a global financial hub is due primarily to its impartial courts and strict adherence to the rule of law.
Foreign judges are welcome in the city’s courts, and attorneys licensed in other common law jurisdictions are welcome to take on issues requiring specialized knowledge.
Yet, in reaction to anti-government protests that shook the city in 2019, China’s governing Communist Party sought to put Hong Kong in line with its authoritarian control by implementing the security law without consulting the territory’s legislature.
There is a worry that Beijing could influence proceedings because of the fact that cases under the Act are handled by a specialized division of the Hong Kong police and designated national security judges.
After the 2019 protests, the Hong Kong authorities claimed that the law had restored order in the city, despite many claims to the contrary.