HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s top court ruled on Monday that a British lawyer can represent pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai in a national security trial, rejecting an appeal by the government to bar foreigner lawyers from such cases.
Lai is perhaps Hong Kong’s most prominent critic of China’s Communist Party leaders including Xi Jinping, and Hong Kong’s Department of Justice made repeated attempts to block British barrister, Timothy Owen, from representing him.
The trial is set to start on December 1, and is expected to last about 30 days.
At a hearing last Friday, a lawyer representing the government, Rimsky Yuen, had told the Court of Final Appeal that the government is seeking a “blanket ban” on foreign lawyers handling national security cases, except in exceptional circumstances.
Yuen argued that cases involving such a “unique” piece of legislation as the national security law required someone familiar with the national security of China, and that an overseas lawyer “would not be in a position” to do so.
But the panel of three judges; Chief Justice Andrew Cheung, Roberto Ribeiro and Joseph Fok, in a written judgment, criticized the Justice Department for “raising undefined and unsubstantiated issues said to involve national security which were not mentioned or explored in the Courts below.”
“Accordingly, we dismiss the application.”
Lai’s lawyer, Robert Pang, had earlier defended Owen’s role in the case.
“It is precisely because we are at such a crossroads of the needs of national security and freedom of expression, the court needs as much assistance as it can get,” Pang said.
Owen’s application to represent Lai – who ran the now shuttered pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper – had been approved by the Court of First Instance, and upheld by the Court of Appeal twice following repeated appeals by the Justice Department and the city’s top legal official, Paul Lam.
Pro-Beijing media outlets such as the Ta Kung Pao newspaper, and several pro-Beijing politicians have suggested that China’s top legal authority might need to overrule Hong Kong’s Final Appeals Court if it backed Owen.
Lai faces a maximum possible life sentence for two counts of conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries or external elements, and one count of collusion with foreign forces under the national security law.
He also faces a sedition charge linked to his Apple Daily newspaper that was forced to close in June 2020 after a police raid and a freeze on its assets. – Rappler.com