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Media tycoon Jimmy Lai pleads not guilty

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Hong Kong media mogul and China critic Jimmy Lai pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to all charges against him in a high-profile “national security” trial where the 76-year-old could face a life sentence.

Flanked by three prison officers, Lai formally pleaded not guilty to the charges read to him, shortly after the court rejected a last-ditch attempt by his counsel to throw out a sedition charge against him.

The court began hearing opening statements from the prosecution on Tuesday at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court.

Dressed in a navy blazer and a white shirt, Lai smiled and waved at his family members as he entered the courtroom ahead of the start of the court session.

What are the charges?

Lai faces two charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces — including for calling for sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials — under the city’s relatively new and controversial national security law imposed from Beijing.

Lai, who founded the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper, is also accused of conspiracy to publish seditious publications, making use of older laws dating back to colonial-era British control of the city.

In this picture taken on June 16, 2020, media tycoon Jimmy Lai poses during an interview with AFP at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong.
Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper shut down several years ago as Hong Kong authorities cracked down on itImage: Anthony Wallace/AFP

US, UK say trial politically motivated

Western powers such as the US, UK and EU are watching the trial closely, viewing it as a key test for Hong Kong’s judicial independence and freedoms under the sweeping national security law China imposed in 2020.

That law drastically lowered the bar to prosecute “national security” crimes like collusion with foreign powers and made it harder to criticize the Chinese Communist Party, as Lai and his former publications did.

The UK in particular, having only ceded control of Hong Kong in the late 1990s, accused China of trampling on the “one country, two systems” agreement brokered at the time that was supposed to guarantee democratic liberties in the city after China’s takeover.

Both the UK and the US have called for Lai’s immediate release and described the trial as politically motivated.

Hong Kong authorities however dispute claims that Lai won’t have a fair trial, saying all are equal before the law. They also argue that the national security law brought stability to Hong Kong following the massive China-critical protests of 2019.

Why does Beijing consider Jimmy Lai to be such a threat?

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msh/nm (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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