A Hong Kong court has upheld a decision to let a veteran British lawyer defend pro-democracy newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai in his upcoming national security trial.
Lai, the 74-year-old founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily, was arrested after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law to crack down on dissent following widespread protests in 2019.
He faces three charges, including conspiracy to collude with a foreign country and a separate charge of sedition. His trial is scheduled to begin on December 1.
China’s National Security Law criminalizes acts of succession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. If convicted, Lai faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Timothy Owen KC, a London-based legal veteran specializing in criminal and human rights law, was given court approval last month to represent Lai despite objections from the city’s justice secretary and the Bar Association from Hong Kong.
At the time, the judge said the case would be important “to the development of local jurisprudence on the enforcement of the National Security Act and the protection of free speech,” adding that it was of interest public to have an eminent specialist abroad as Mr. Owen participated in the trial.
Facing an appeal by the justice secretary, Court of Appeal judges on Wednesday upheld the earlier ruling, saying the public perception of fairness in the trial was important to the administration of justice.
“The court must take a flexible and judicious approach to reach a decision that best meets the public interest in this application,” they said.
Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to China in 1997, uses the same common law jurisdiction as the United Kingdom. In addition to having foreign judges serve in the city’s courts, lawyers from other jurisdictions who practice common law may also work within the city’s legal system, especially when their expertise is needed for some cases.
Mr Owen, who works at Matrix Chambers, has appeared in previous high-profile Hong Kong cases. He represented British banker Rurik Jutting, who was convicted of murdering two women, and a police officer who appealed against his conviction for assaulting a pro-democracy activist during the 2014 protests.
Lai is already serving a 20-month prison sentence for his role in unauthorized assemblies. He also awaits sentencing on his fraud conviction on November 24. These charges are separate from the national security law.
His legal team previously asked the United Nations to investigate his imprisonment and multiple criminal charges as “legal harassment” to punish him for speaking out.
The enactment of the security law has led to the arrest of many prominent democracy activists. It has also damaged confidence in the future of the international financial centre, with increasing numbers of young professionals responding to reduced freedoms by moving abroad.