Hong Kong’s legal clampdown on China critic Jimmy Lai

By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A landmark Hong Kong national security trial against the now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and its founder, Jimmy Lai, begins this month.

If convicted, Lai, 76, faces possible life imprisonment on charges he colluded with foreign forces, including the United States.

Following is a timeline of Lai’s legal battles.

June 20, 1995 – Lai publishes the first edition of Apple Daily.

June 30, 2020 – China directly imposes a national security law (NSL) on Hong Kong. The law punishes subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces, with up to life imprisonment.

Aug 10 – Lai arrested under the NSL over alleged “collusion with foreign forces” as 200 police raid his listed company (Next Digital) headquarters, where Apple Daily is produced and published. He is released on bail.

Dec 3 – Lai taken into custody after being denied bail and charged with fraud related to the lease of Next Digital’s headquarters.

Dec 11 – Lai is charged under the NSL with suspicion of colluding with foreign forces.

Dec 23 – Lai is granted bail and able to spend Christmas at home.

Dec 29 – Lai resigns as chairman of Next Digital.

Dec 31 – Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal orders Lai back into custody, saying the judge erred in granting him bail.

April 12, 2021 – “Defending freedom of speech is a dangerous job. It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice,” Lai writes from prison.

April 16 – Lai is jailed for 14 months for taking part in an unauthorised assembly during a protest in August 2019.

May 14 – Lai’s listed company faces mounting pressures, including a freeze on assets leading to its ultimate shutdown. It is the first time a listed firm has been targeted by national security laws in the financial hub.

May 28 – Lai is jailed for a second 14-month jail sentence for taking part in an unauthorised assembly on Oct. 1, 2019.

June 17 – Police arrest five executives of Apple Daily, including chief editor Ryan Law and former editor Chan Pui-man, as 500 police officers raid and search its newsroom, seizing computers.

June 20 – Apple Daily marks its 26th anniversary. The paper says it has cash left for “a few weeks” of normal operations.

June 24 – Apple Daily prints 1 million copies of its last edition.

Sep 29 – Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary Paul Chan presents a petition to the Court of First Instance to wind up Next Digital Ltd (0282.HK).

Dec 13 – Lai is sentenced to 13 months for taking part in a banned vigil for victims of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

July 30, 2022 – Secretary of Justice Paul Lam orders a no-jury trial, citing “involvement of foreign factors” and a “real risk that the due administration of justice might be impaired”.

Nov 22 – Six former Apple Daily staff pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign forces.

Nov 28 – Hong Kong leader John Lee asks Beijing to rule on its bid to block foreign lawyers from working on national security cases, after the top court rules that British lawyer Tim Owen could represent Lai.

Dec 10 – Lai is sentenced to 5 years and 9 months for fraud linked to a lease violation.

Dec 13 – Hong Kong’s High Court postpones the security trial against Lai to late September, awaiting a decision from Beijing on whether Owen could defend him.

Dec 30 – China’s top lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, gives Hong Kong leader John Lee the power to bar lawyers without the right to practice in Hong Kong from national security cases. The move effectively bars Owen from defending Lai.

May 19, 2023 – Hong Kong’s High Court dismisses an attempt by Lai to challenge this ruling.

May 29 – Hong Kong’s High Court rejects an application to terminate the security trial against Lai.

June 19 – Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal blocks Lai’s bid to challenge a warrant obtained by national security police to scrutinise the contents of his mobile phones.

Dec 18 – Lai’s NSL trial to open for an expected 80 days.

(Additional reporting by Dorothy Kam; Editing by James Pomfret and Gerry Doyle)