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In this December 12, 2020 photo, Jimmy Lai, who founded the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is escorted by Correctional Services officers to a prison van before appearing in a court. © 2020 Kin Cheung/AP Photo

(New York) –The Hong Kong authorities should drop the baseless charges against Jimmy Lai, founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, and release him from prison, Human Rights Watch said today. Lai’s national security trial is scheduled to start on December 18, 2023, and is expected to last for 80 days.

Lai, 76, faces three “foreign collusion” charges under the draconian National Security Law, imposed by Beijing since June 2020, and a sedition charge, based on his tweets, interviews he hosted, and articles he published in Apple Daily. The National Security Law charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

“Given the National Security Law’s 100 percent conviction rate and Beijing’s determination to crush the city’s pro-democracy movement, Lai’s future may depend on the international response to this farce,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch. “Concerned governments should press the authorities to drop the charges against Lai, which have contributed to seriously damaging press freedom in Hong Kong.”

Since his arrest in August 2020, Lai has been held in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison for more than 1,200 days. He is allowed 50 minutes in the open air each day. Under the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, solitary confinement should only be used in exceptional cases as a last resort and for as short a time as possible, and prolonged solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days might constitute torture. Lai’s family has expressed concerns over his health.

The lawyers representing Lai, from the London-based Doughty Street Chambers, said that they have received death and rape threats, including to their family members, and faced cyberattacks and online surveillance for representing Lai. The Beijing-controlled newspaper Wen Wei Po ran several articles attacking Lai’s defense lawyers, calling them “anti-China” and saying that by drawing international attention to Lai’s case were attempting to “manipulate” the court case.

Lai's prosecution has been marred by multiple serious violations of his fair trial rights, including being assigned judges handpicked by the Hong Kong government, facing a non-jury trial and prolonged pretrial detention, and being denied having counsel of his choice. In May, the High Court upheld the government’s decision to bar a British lawyer, Timothy Owen, from representing Lai.

In addition to the current national security and sedition charges, Lai was convicted in three cases of “unauthorized assembly” in April, May, and December 2021 for participating in protests and sentenced to a total of 20 months in prison, later reduced to 17 months. Lai was also convicted of two “fraud” charges in October 2022 for alleged lease violations by his media company and sentenced to another 5 years and 9 months in prison. He has been serving his sentences since April 2021.

The Hong Kong government has also denied Lai, a British citizen, consular access, on the basis that it does not recognize dual nationality.

In March, a group of UN special rapporteurs expressed “grave concern” for Lai’s case and the Hong Kong government’s abusive use of the National Security Law to attack basic freedoms in Hong Kong. In May 2022, more than 100 members of parliament and peers in the UK issued a joint letter urging the UK foreign secretary to draw up a list of officials linked to human rights violations in Hong Kong. In June, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for the Hong Kong government to release Lai and other pro-democracy activists.

Although Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Australia have expressed “deep concern” about Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong in June 2020 and all have human rights sanctions regimes, none have used them against any Hong Kong or Chinese government officials responsible for rights violations in the city. While the UK has raised Lai’s case, it has not called for his release.

As to the United States, it has not sanctioned any Hong Kong or Chinese government officials for Hong Kong-related violations since July 2021.

“Democratic governments should send an unequivocal message to the Chinese government that repression carries a cost,” Wang said. “Lai’s trial is a perfect opportunity for governments to translate their concerns into actions, by calling for Lai’s release and imposing coordinated and targeted sanctions on officials who trample Hong Kong people’s fundamental rights.”

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