Human rights lawyers representing detained Hong Kong-British media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai (pictured above, centre) have called the UK government’s lack of action over his imprisonment “an outrage”.
His legal team were speaking the day after an all-party parliamentary group called on the government to treat Lai’s imprisonment as “a political priority”.
The British government is yet to call for the release of Lai, a pro-democracy businessman who founded the now-shuttered Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily.
Lai was arrested under Hong Kong’s national security law in August 2020. He has served two custodial sentences for involvement in peaceful protests in 2019 and 2020 and is currently serving a sentence relating to an alleged breach of the terms of Apple Daily’s premises lease.
If found guilty of breaching the national security law at trial in September, Lai, aged 75, faces a further minimum sentence of ten years. The maximum sentence under the law is life in prison.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, who is leading Lai’s international legal team, said the US and EU had been more vocal in advocating for Lai than the UK government.
“The conviction that he received on wholly bogus [lease] fraud charges on the 25th of October 2022… That went unremarked upon by the UK government. It didn’t go unremarked upon by the US government – the US government put out a very strong statement that day to say this is a wholly bogus conviction.”
Tatyana Eatwell, a member of Lai’s legal team who was previously involved in the campaign to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from jail in Iran, said that when governments drag their feet on calling for their citizen’s freedom, “the family feels like they’re fighting two governments”.
Lai’s son Sebastien said the British government was sending a message “to all British people that if you’re in another country and there’s injustice: turn a blind eye, go back home and have a pint in the pub”.
“But it also says [Jimmy Lai] should have just taken the money, been a businessman and enjoyed nice holidays and let injustice happen to other people.”
Eatwell added that Lai’s case could be emblematic of a broader breakdown of the rule of law in Hong Kong that could ultimately affect British businesses.
“If people are imprisoned for being critical, you may wonder what happens if, say, in a financial institution, someone makes some predictions based on their economic policy and forecasting that is not ‘agreed with’ by the authorities – and whether that may fall within the limits [of the national security law].”
But Gallagher said that “the bottom line” was that the elder Lai “stayed put to stand up for others and to stand up for human rights and democratic values and for free speech in Hong Kong. Now, it’s really time for us to stand up for him.”
The UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong’s report published on Monday lays out eight steps the UK government should take over Lai’s case, including applying “targeted sanctions against the individuals responsible for Jimmy Lai’s arrest and arbitrary detention”, among them the city’s chief executive John Lee.
But Sebastien Lai said for now their team was simply urging the government to take the “very easy first steps” of condemning Lai’s imprisonment and calling for his release.
Gallagher said: “If something doesn’t change, we are going to see a British national die behind bars in Hong Kong because of his journalism, because of his writing, because of his being a media owner and because of his entirely peaceful support for democratic values and human rights.
“This case is an absolute outrage. And people should be shouting from the rooftops about it.”
Responding to the lawyers’ statements, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Department of Justice said that “as relevant legal proceedings are still ongoing, it is inappropriate for anyone to comment on the case” but directed Press Gazette toward court documents elaborating on the lease fraud case verdict and sentence. The spokesman did not respond to a query as to whether criminal penalties have previously been given for lease fraud in Hong Kong.
The spokesman also warned that attempts “to interfere with the judicial proceedings in the [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] by means of political power… is a blatant act undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong.
“Making a statement with the intent to interfere with or obstruct the course of justice, or engaging in conduct with the same intent, is very likely to constitute the offence of criminal contempt of court or the offence of perverting the course of justice.”
This article was updated after publication to incorporate comment from the Hong Kong Department of Justice.
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