Son of jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai says it’s in Hong Kong’s interest to free him

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

GENEVA (Reuters) -The son of Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon jailed in Hong Kong, said on Wednesday it was in the interest of the former British colony to release his father and not let him die in jail.

Sebastien Lai, who was in Geneva to take part in a British-organised event on media freedom in Hong Kong, has not seen his 75-year-old father in three years.

“I am optimistic because I believe that there’s no benefit in the Hong Kong government having my father die in jail,” Sebastien Lai said on the prospect of his father’s release.

“He’s a pro-democracy activist, a publisher, and he’s also an incredibly peaceful man … Now that they’ve taken all that he has, keeping him in prison is just cruel.”

Jimmy Lai is the founder of now shut pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and one of the most prominent Hong Kong critics of China’s Communist Party leadership, including President Xi Jinping.

This week he marked his 1,000th day in a Hong Kong prison on charges related to a law on national security that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 after months of anti-government protests. The law punishes acts including subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with up to life in prison.

Hong Kong’s government said in a statement on Thursday it strongly disapproved of the repeated attempt by the United Kingdom and other countries to make “skewed remarks” against the city’s human rights situation.

“Such remarks amount to political manipulation that disregards and even twists facts,” it said. Countries should respect international laws and norms governing international relations, and “immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong matters, which are purely China’s internal affairs,” it added.

In the run-up to Wednesday’s event, China’s diplomatic mission in Geneva had pressed countries to boycott it, saying issues related to Hong Kong were internal Chinese affairs.

Despite calling for a boycott, the Chinese mission sent a representative to the event, who said it amounted to meddling in China’s affairs.

In a separate statement, the commissioner’s office of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong accused the United Kingdom and United States of “maliciously slandering” the national security law and “blatantly supporting the anti-China and disruptive Hong Kong activist Jimmy Lai.”

Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, who also took part in the event, welcomed China’s presence.

“The Chinese government, frankly, does not like to hear from organizations like us,” she said. “I hope they took careful notes and report everything back to Beijing because they should hear what we have to say.” Sebastien Lai – who said his father, a British national, was not being granted consular access – described his father as a man who always led by example.

“Of course, he’s human. He fears,” Sebastien Lai said. “But he knows that he can’t bend to that fear.”

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Geneva; Additional reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Lincoln Feast.)