Hong Kong, Dec 1 (EFE).- The trial in Hong Kong of media tycoon Jimmy Lai was postponed Thursday to Dec. 13 while his defense lawyer’s visa issues are resolved.
Authorities of the former British colony have not granted Lai’s British barrister Tim Owen a work visa.
The trial was due to begin on Thursday but Owen’s visa situation meant that he was absent from the highly-publicized first hearing.
Lai is the first person to be tried in Hong Kong on the charge of conspiracy with foreign forces, a crime under the controversial National Security Law (NSL) which carries the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
According to Lai’s defense team, the development once again highlights the authorities’ efforts to prevent his lawyer from participating in the trial.
Lai, 74, a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), faces three charges under the strict NSL imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 by Beijing, including alleged collusion with “foreign forces” and another of sedition under colonial-era legislation.
The founder of the now defunct pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper has been in prison since December 2020 and has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Six other defendants in the same case – all employees of the newspaper who worked with Lai for years – have pleaded guilty and three of them will testify against the tycoon.
Owen recently arrived in Hong Kong on a valid work visa to participate in both the Lai trial and a different proceeding.
Robert Pang, a member of Lai’s legal team, told reporters that the Immigration Department had decided to withhold Owen’s visa extension application without explanation.
Over the past two months, the Hong Kong government has tried to block the British lawyer’s participation in legal proceedings on four occasions, arguing that a foreign lawyer should not be allowed to take part in a trial on a charge of conspiracy with foreign forces.
Previous attempts, however, were thwarted by Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal (CFA), but following the judges’ decisions, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee proposed an interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law to “clarify whether foreign lawyers can take part in National Security Act cases.”
In recent weeks, there has been mounting pressure from pro-Beijing political leaders and media in the Special Administrative Region to block the lawyer’s visa extension.
In Hong Kong, a former British colony with a common law jurisdiction, the admission of British lawyers is commonplace.
Lai fled mainland China for Hong Kong when he was 12 years old and built a pro-democracy media network.
The businessman has been serving a 20-month sentence since December 2020 on various charges related to anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019.
He is one of many pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong who have been arrested by authorities since Beijing imposed the NSL in late June 2020 in response to the 2019 protest movement that was opposed to the CCP.
Critics of the law have said it will undermine Hong Kong’s long tradition of judicial independence. EFE