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U.S., Britain call on China to release Jimmy Lai as his trial begins

The trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai (C) begins Monday in Hong Kong where he faces charges under the former British colony's controversial National Security Law, which was imposed after mass pro-democracy protests brought the city-state to a standstill in 2019. File Photo by Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE
The trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai (C) begins Monday in Hong Kong where he faces charges under the former British colony's controversial National Security Law, which was imposed after mass pro-democracy protests brought the city-state to a standstill in 2019. File Photo by Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE

Dec. 17 (UPI) -- As the long-awaited trial of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai began Monday, the United States and Britain called for the immediate release of the 76-year-old who has been held in pre-trial detention for more than 1,000 days.

Lai, the former pro-democracy publisher of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, was arrested in August of 2020 on accusations of violating the then-newly imposed national security law that issues stiff penalties for violating widely defined acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and working with foreign agencies to undermine the national security of China.

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Lai, a British citizen, faces three counts of collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security and one count of seditious publications for content that appeared in his newspaper, which shuttered in June of 2021, just days after it was raided by police.

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During his pretrial detention, Lai was denied bail. He has also been denied his choice of legal representation. And he is also being tried without a jury.

If convicted, he could face a maximum penalty of life in prison.

"The United States condemns the prosecution of pro-democracy advocate and media owner Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong under the PRC-imposed National Security Law," U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement as Lai's trial was to get underway. The People's Republic of China is China's official name.

"We call on Hong Kong authorities to immediately release Jimmy Lai and all others imprisoned for defending their rights," he said.

Lai is arguably the most prominent figure to be charged under the controversial National Security Law, which Beijing imposed upon Hong Kong after mass pro-democracy protests rocked the former British colony in 2019.

The imposition of the law was swiftly met with widespread condemnation from Western nations who described it as a further erosion of Hong Kong's freedoms.

An effect of the law is that many pro-democracy activists and politicians were forced flee overseas out fear of prosecution. Hong Kong authorities have issued bounties and arrest warrants for 13 of the self-exiled pro-democracy activists.

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Lai's son, Sebastien Lai, met with Britain's foreign secretary, David Cameron, where he voiced his concern about his jailed father.

As the trial began in Hong Kong on Monday, Cameron reiterated his country's criticism of the National Security Law and said he was "gravely concerned" about anyone facing prosecution under it, especially Lai.

"As a prominent and outspoken journalist and publisher, Jimmy Lai has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association. I urge the Chinese authorities to repeal the National Security Law and end the prosecution of all individuals charged under it," he said in a statement.

"I call on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution and release Jimmy Lai."

As the trial approached, other nations took notice, with Canadian lawmakers in the House of Commons last week unanimously adopting a motion to call upon Hong Kong authorities to "cease prosecuting him and others charged under the National Security Law."

The European Parliament in June also passed an urgent Resolution calling for the jailed publisher's release.

"Mr. Lai deserves to be honored for his extraordinary dedication and courage in publishing the truth and peacefully advocating for democracy in Hong Kong, instead of being held behind bars," Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chief executive of the British-based Hong Kong Watch organization, said in a statement.

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"The only guilty party in this trial is the Hong Kong authorities, who continue to dismantle the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press in Hong Kong."

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