Although 74-year-old media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai faces life in prison under Beijing’s harsh National Security Law (NSL), he now has a new ally in his corner: veteran human rights lawyer Timothy Owen.
Lai, already serving time for convictions related to the NSL, still faces a December trial that could leave him spending the rest of his life behind bars. On Wednesday, however, Lai’s outlook got a little brighter. A Hong Kong court upheld the decision to assign a new lawyer to represent Lai in his trial: U.K. barrister Timothy Owen. Owen specializes in public, criminal, and human rights law. Deemed “one of the best appellate advocates of his generation” by Legal 500, Owen has argued cases involving political protest, terrorism policing, and false imprisonment, and has appeared before Hong Kong courts in the past.
Owen’s experience in international law and human rights could be integral to this case, as Beijing notes the importance of at least the perception of a fair trial for Lai. The Apple Daily and New Media founder faces three counts of violating the NSL, two counts of colluding with foreign countries, and one count of colluding with foreign forces, along with a separate sedition charge. Despite pushback from the Hong Kong Bar Association and the city’s secretary of justice, Paul Lam, who argued that the U.K. barrister lacked expertise in the National Security Law, Owen will nevertheless be fighting charges Lai’s team previously described as “legal harassment.”
The judge in Lai’s case has noted the importance of Lai’s upcoming trial for “development of local jurisprudence on the application of the National Security Law and the protection of the freedom of expression” in the city.
In the wake of pro-democracy protests across Hong Kong in 2020, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) enacted the sweeping NSL to criminalize perceived collusion with foreign forces, subversion, terrorism, and succession. In reality, the law has been used to crack down on basic human rights and the CCP’s political opponents, including the countless voices that have repeatedly called for a return to the country’s historic “One Country, Two Systems” policy.
Lai, who took part in multiple protests in 2019 and 2020, is one of the country’s most outspoken critics of the CCP and a leader among the Hong Kong resistance movement. As a result, Lai was sentenced to 13 months in prison in December 2021, with additional sentences levied for assisting other pro-democracy activists in the fight against the Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Konger rights. Lai’s trial is expected to begin on December 1, even as six of his Apple Daily and Next Digital coworkers prepare to stand trial in late November. All six of Lai’s colleagues have pleaded guilty, even as Lai maintains his innocence.
The Hong Konger, the Acton Institute’s new documentary, tells the story of Jimmy Lai’s heroic struggle against authoritarian Beijing and its erosion of human rights in Hong Kong. It is currently being screened in cities around the world.