By Shirley Lau
Hong Kong, Nov 28 (EFE).- The Hong Kong government’s last-ditch attempt to prevent a UK lawyer from defending fallen media tycoon Jimmy Lai in his upcoming national security trial has been dismissed by the city’s top court in a landmark ruling.
On Monday afternoon, three judges of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal (CFA) ruled against the Department of Justice (DOJ), which sought to overturn an official permission previously granted to London-based King’s Counsel Timothy Owen to represent Lai in his high-profile trial,
slated to begin on Thursday.
It was the government’s fourth attempt to block Owen from joining Lai’s defense team, on the grounds that using a foreign barrister in a local trial concerning alleged foreign collusion was inappropriate.
Lai, 74, an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will be tried on three charges under the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020, which criminalizes acts of succession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.
The charges Lai faces include alleged collusion with foreign forces, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In the trial, Lai will also face a sedition charge under colonial-era legislation.
In Hong Kong, a former British colony and a common law jurisdiction, admission of experienced lawyers from the UK is not uncommon. According to Hong Kong rules, Kings Counsels from the UK — established lawyers appointed by the British monarch — need official permission before they can defend clients in Hong Kong courts.
In the Monday ruling, CFA judges dismissed the DOJ’s call for a blanket ban on admissions of foreign lawyers in national security cases.
As the CFA is a court of last resort, its decisions are final and not appealable.
Over the past eight weeks, the Hong Kong government tried thrice to block Owen’s admission, but all three attempts were dismissed by the city’s lower courts.
In one ruling, judges ruled that “public perception of fairness in the trial is of vital importance to the administration of justice”.
Immediately after its third attempt was dismissed by a lower court last Monday, the government made a fourth appeal by directly appealing to the CFA.
In recent weeks, pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong threw their weight behind the government and fiercely criticized the lower courts’ decisions.
On Monday evening Hong Kong’s leader John Lee told reporters that he would lodge a proposal to Beijing to request an interpretation of the Hong Kong Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, to clarify whether foreign lawyers can deal with national security law cases.
Lai, the founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper who fled mainland China to Hong Kong at the age of 12 and built a successful pro-democracy media business, has been behind bars since late December 2020.
He is currently serving a 20-month sentence for various charges related to the city’s anti-government protests in 2019.
He is one of the dozens of prominent pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong to have been arrested by the authorities since Beijing imposed the national security law in late June 2020, in response to the 2019 protest movement.
Critics of the security law are concerned that the law may undermine Hong Kong’s long-standing tradition of judicial independence, not least because a few judges are handpicked to handle national security cases and defendants in some cases, including Lai, are tried without jury.EFE