Trial of Hong Kong’s Lai delayed as Beijing weighs ruling on foreign lawyers
By Darerca Siu and Angel Woo
HONG KONG (Reuters) -A Hong Kong court on Thursday adjourned to December 13 the high-profile trial of tycoon and China critic Jimmy Lai, who faces several charges of collusion with foreign countries under a China-imposed national security law.
The postponement of the trial by three High Court judges comes three days after Hong Kong authorities asked China’s highest legislative body to decide whether to block foreign lawyers from national security cases, including a British barrister, Timothy Owen, who now leads Lai’s legal team.
Lai’s legal team did not oppose the adjournment.
Lai is one of the most prominent Hong Kong critics of China’s Communist Party leadership, and his case is being closely watched by the public, legal community and diplomats amid fears that Hong Kong’s rule of law is being undermined.
Hong Kong’s Department of Justice has made repeated attempts to block Owen from defending Lai.
But Hong Kong’s highest court, the Court of Final Appeal, on Monday dismissed its application to impose a “blanket ban” on foreign lawyers working on national security cases.
Following this setback, city leader John Lee requested China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee to make an interpretation on the matter, in a ruling that is expected to come “as soon as possible” Lee said.
This is only the sixth time since Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 that such an “interpretation” has been sought, with critics saying such moves undermine the city’s judicial independence.
Lai, who appeared in court in a grey jacket, faces a maximum possible life sentence, including for two counts of conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries or external elements.
He also faces a sedition charge linked to his Apple Daily newspaper that was forced to close in June 2021 after a police raid and a freeze on its assets.
The court was told that Hong Kong’s immigration department had withheld an extension of a work visa for Owen.
The immigration department did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Raju Gopalakrishnan)