By ZEN SOO
HONG KONG (AP) — Prominent activist and publisher Jimmy Lai on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to three charges of sedition and collusion with foreign countries in a landmark national security trial in Hong Kong.
The 76-year-old media tycoon who founded the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper faces one count of conspiring to print seditious publications to incite hatred against the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, as well as two counts of collusion with foreign countries to call for sanctions and other hostile actions against China and Hong Kong.
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.
Prosecutor Anthony Chau in his opening statements described Lai as a “radical political figure” and the “mastermind” behind a conspiracy. Chau also said that Lai had used his media platform to advance his political agenda.
Clips of interviews that Lai gave to foreign media as well as speeches at events between 2019 and 2020 were also played in court. In the video, Lai called for support from foreign governments and urged U.S. officials as well as then- President Donald Trump to impose “draconian” measures on China and Chinese officials in retaliation for imposing the national security law and restricting freedoms in Hong Kong.
His prosecution has drawn criticism from the United States and the United Kingdom. Beijing has called those comments irresponsible, saying they went against international law and the basic norms of international relations.
The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, or IPAC, an international political group that’s critical of China’s human rights record and foreign policy, said Lai’s trial “fabricated” evidence that the media mogul was involved in its work.
“Evidence presented to prove that Mr. Lai was responsible for IPAC’s Hong Kong activities is fabricated. He was not involved—directly or indirectly—in any of it,” the group said in a statement.
It condemned prosecutors’ attempts to implicate two of its senior members—executive director Luke de Pulford, who is based in London, and Japan director Shiori Yamao—as “co-conspirators” in the trial.
The allegations were made up” to suit Beijing’s ludicrous narrative that Jimmy was someone behind the pro-democracy movement,” de Pulford said.
The case is being closely watched by foreign governments, business professionals and legal scholars. Many view it as a trial of the city’s freedoms and a test for judicial independence in the Asian financial hub.
Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to Chin’s rule in 1997 under a promise the city would retain its Western-style civil liberties for 50 years. That promise has become increasingly threadbare since the introduction of the security law, which has led to the arrests and silencing of many leading pro- democracy activists.
The governments of both Hong Kong and China have hailed the law for bringing back stability to the city.
Hong Kong, once seen as a bastion of media freedom in Asia, ranked 140th out of 180 countries and territories in Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index. The group said the city had seen an “unprecedented setback” since 2020, when the security law was imposed.