By Jessie Pang and Dorothy Kam
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong tycoon and pro-democracy advocate Jimmy Lai pleaded not guilty on Tuesday in a landmark trial, where he is accused of endangering China’s national security, as prosecutors laid out details of what they said was collusion with foreign forces.
Lai, a leading critic of the Chinese Communist Party, faces two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces – including calling for sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials – under a China-imposed national security law.
“Not guilty,” Lai said three times as each charge was read, appearing calm as he sat in a glass dock surrounded by guards and a court filled with family, supporters and foreign diplomats.
Lai, 76, the founder of now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is also charged with conspiracy to publish seditious publications.
Western democracies, including Britain, the European Union and the United States, are watching closely, with the trial a diplomatic flashpoint and a test for Hong Kong’s judicial independence and freedoms under the sweeping national security law China imposed in 2020.
After marathon legal proceedings stretching over three years since Lai was arrested, the prosecution outlined for the first time in court the main details of their case, including meetings with senior figures in the former administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which they said were evidence he colluded with foreign forces.
Prosecutor Anthony Chau told the three high court judges that Lai was “a radical figure” who conspired with others to bring “hatred and stir up opposition” against Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.
In a chart displayed in court, a picture of Lai was shown alongside images of Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Others, including former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were also shown, as well as individuals in Taiwan.
The prosecutor in addition played several videos of Lai calling for sanctions against China.
“Under the guise of fighting for freedom and democracy”, Chau said, Lai had since June 2019 made requests for foreign countries, in particular the United States, to impose sanctions against the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.
Washington imposed several rounds of sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials, including Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, after a China-imposed national security law was enacted in June 2020.
Lai was accused of conspiring with three companies and six former executives linked to the Apple Daily, and several others including U.S. citizen Mark Simon to produce seditious publications and to collude with foreign forces.
Chau alleged that Lai “acted together with, inter alia, the senior management of his company and orchestrated a conspiracy with the … freedom advocacy group ‘Stand with Hong Kong, Fight for Freedom'”.
Lai was also accused of conspiring with activist Andy Li, exiled activist Finn Lau, Britain-based rights campaigner Luke de Pulford, Japanese politician Shiori Yamao, financier Bill Browder and others to lobby foreign countries, including Australia, Britain, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and the United States, for sanctions.
Others alleged to be intermediaries or agents that Lai collaborated with include British rights campaigner Benedict Rogers, former deputy US defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz and former U.S. diplomat James Blair Cunningham.
Chau cited a total of 161 articles as “examples of seditious publications…with a view to polluting the minds of the impressionable ones.”
Several “accomplice” witnesses would be called, the prosecution said, including former Apple Daily editor Chan Pui-man and other executives from the newspaper.
Britain and the United States have called for Lai’s immediate release, saying his trial is politically motivated.
Hong Kong authorities dispute claims that Lai will not receive a fair trial, saying all are equal before the law and that the national security law has brought stability to Hong Kong after mass protests in 2019.
(Additional reporting by Edward Cho; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Sonali Paul, Gerry Doyle, Shri Navaratnam and Barbara Lewis)