Prosecutors in Hong Kong have charged pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai under the city’s national security law, citing words and actions dating from before the law was imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on July 1.
Lai appeared in court on Saturday for his arraignment, where details of the charges against him were made public for the first time.
He is charged under the National Security Law for Hong Kong of calling on “overseas institutions, organizations and personnel to impose sanctions or take other hostile actions against Hong Kong or China” between July 1 and Dec. 1, 2020.
Prosecutors cite interviews he gave to foreign media organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Fox News, as well as comments and accounts he followed on Twitter.
Some of the evidence cited by prosecutors predates the implementation of the new law, including a meeting Lai held with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 8, 2019 during a trip to Washington.
On Twitter, Lai is accused of collusion with foreign powers for following Tsai Ing-wen, president of democratic Taiwan, on Twitter, and for thanking Pompeo for his support on July 11 and 12, 2020.
Lai joined Twitter in May 2020, and had followed 53 people, including Tsai, Benedict Rogers, vice chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Committee, and Conservative Human Rights Committee member Luke de Pulford, counting former 1989 democracy movement leaders Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi among his 100,000 followers, the indictment said.
No retroactive effect
Former Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said Lai shouldn’t be prosecuted retroactively.
“The National Security Law states that it has no retrospective effect,” Lam told RFA. “Now they are actually including Lai’s words and deeds before the law came into force in the prosecution’s case.”
He said Lai had done nothing wrong.
“It’s normal that Hong Kong, as an international city, will form ties with foreign politicians,” he said. “There has been no collusion with foreign forces whatsoever.”
Lam said the government is trying to make an example of Lai, to create a chilling effect for any form of international contacts by the people of Hong Kong.
A brief survey of Twitter carried out on Monday showed that pro-Beijing politician Ronny Tong also follows Wang Dan, while members of the pro-CCP Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), have also liked tweets by Tsai Ing-wen on the platform.
Hong Kong University (HKU) law professor Johannes Chan said it was also very worrying that Lai had been denied bail for several months ahead of his trial date in April 2021.
“If giving interviews to foreign media is construed as colluding with foreign powers, then that’s it, really,” Chan said. He said the indictment was “very bad news indeed.”
Paraded in chains
Social activist and former lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun said he was also concerned that the septuagenarian Lai was taken to court in chains in a top-security prisoner van.
“I think those in power see Jimmy Lai as No. 1 dissident, so they are making more theater around his arrest, like parading him [in chains],” Shiu said.
Chan Kin-man, who served time for “inciting” the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement said the harsh treatment of Lai wouldn’t make much difference.
“The tyrannical regime thinks they are humiliating him, but he sees those shackles as a crown of glory,” Chan told RFA.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that the accusations were “an affront to freedom loving people … everywhere.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Lai’s prosecution “makes a mockery of justice.”
“@JimmyLaiApple’s only ‘crime’ is speaking the truth about the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism and fear of freedom,” he wrote. “Charges should be dropped and he should be released immediately.”
Crimes against freedom, human rights
In Taiwan, foreign minister Joseph Wu said via a signed tweet that the “evidence” marshalled against Lai was rather “evidence of China’s crimes against freedom and human rights.”
Hong Kong’s department of justice said it was inappropriate for anyone to comment on Lai’s case, and that comments from senior overseas officials showed they lacked respect for Hong Kong’s judicial system.
In Taiwan, former political bookseller Lam Wing-kei, who fled Hong Kong after being detained by Chinese state security police over banned political books sent to customers in mainland China, said Hongkongers should think about leaving before the authorities seal the borders.
“If you protest, you will be charged. You can be accused of breaking the law just over a couple of words,” Lam told the Apple Daily newspaper, citing Jimmy Lai’s prosecution.
“Why stay, if you can face criminal charges at any time?” he said.
Reported by Lu Xi for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Raymond Chung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.