Hong Kong freedom fighter Jimmy Lai was scheduled to go on trial this week for alleged crimes against China’s National Security Law. However, Hong Kong’s immigration department has succeeded in pushing the trial back by denying Lai access to a key international lawyer on his legal team: Timothy Owen, whose visa was recently withheld by a Hong Kong court. The trial, originally set to begin December 1, is now reportedly set to begin on December 13.
A member of the King’s Counsel, Owen is a veteran of the U.K.’s legal system specializing in international law, human rights, and political protest. His appearance as Lai’s counsel has drawn opposition not only from Beijing but also Hong Kong’s Department of Justice, including senior counsel Paul Lam.
Jimmy Lai is being charged under the Beijing-imposed National Security Law (NSL), enacted in 2020 in the wake of a myriad of pro-democracy protests across Hong Kong. Under the NSL, Lai faces three specific charges: two counts of colluding with foreign countries/elements and one count of colluding with foreign forces.
The move to block Owen from defending Lai is not simply a quibble over the involvement of international lawyers in the country’s complex litigation process, but also a desire to maintain the CCP’s stranglehold on Hong Kong’s legal system entirely. Beijing would like nothing more than to shut out international lawyers and further erode Hong Kong’s past degree of legal freedom that once allowed democracy to flourish in the city under the old “one country, two systems” rule, guaranteed when the U.K. relinquished control of its former colony in 1997.
If Lai cannot appeal to legal experts like Owen, the CCP’s victory becomes all but inevitable. When Lai’s trial does begin, nothing less than freedom, democracy, and the rule of law are at stake.
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.