Hong Kong top court hears Jimmy Lai appeal as scrutiny mounts

Prominent UK judge, Jonathan Sumption warned of a “grave danger” to the rule of law because of Beijing’s tightening grip.

Jimmy Lai in 2020. (Photographer: Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg)
Jimmy Lai in 2020. (Photographer: Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg)

By: Josh Xiao and Lorretta Chen

(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong’s highest court started its first trial over former media mogul Jimmy Lai’s role in pro-democracy protests in 2019 after a spate of departures of foreign judges renewed scrutiny on the city’s judiciary.

The Court of Final Appeal on Monday began hearing the appeal from Lai and six former lawmakers who seek to overturn their conviction for joining an unlawful protest in August 2019. A lower court earlier cleared the seven pro-democracy activists of a charge of organising that rally but upheld their guilty verdict for participating in it.

The hearing comes days after a prominent UK judge, Jonathan Sumption, resigned from the top court in one of three exits announced this month and warned of a “grave danger” to the rule of law in the finance hub because of Beijing’s tightening grip.

The Monday trial was the first time that the city’s apex court examined a conviction of Lai’s role in a protest. He and former legislators including Margaret Ng and Albert Ho were previously found guilty of joining a banned march on August 18, 2019, one of the largest ever in the former British colony and seen as a challenge to Beijing’s authority.

A non-permanent justice from the UK, former Supreme Court President David Neuberger, was on the panel of five judges hearing the case. The democracy advocates had argued their action could be excused because authorities posed an excessive curb on their freedom of assembly, citing a 2021 ruling by the UK Supreme Court.

Neuberger is one of the remaining overseas judges Hong Kong’s top court recruited from other common law jurisdictions, a feature the city has touted as a testament to the its independent judiciary since returning to Chinese rule in 1997. An exodus of foreign justices since China’s imposition of a national security law on the city in 2020 threatens to hurt its key appeal to global businesses.

The Hong Kong government denied putting any political pressure on courts, saying it has always respected their independent adjudication power.

Lai and the six other defendants joined protests opposing a government proposal to allow extradition to mainland China in 2019. The demonstrations successfully derailed the bill and escalated into a broader movement against police actions and demanding greater freedoms, prompting Beijing to impose a national security law the next year that crushed dissent.

Lai, who is already serving prison sentences for a range of offenses related to his activism, is facing more severe charges of collusion with foreign forces under the Beijing-drafted legislation in a separate trial that will resume next month.

Any conviction of Lai risks further inflaming ties between China and the US and UK, which are among countries that have called for his release.

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