Lai, the 74-year-old founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily, was arrested after Beijing imposed a sweeping sanction. national security law to crack down on dissidents after widespread protests in 2019. He faces three charges, including conspiracy to collude with another country and a separate charge of sedition. His trial is expected to begin on December 1.
The National Security Act criminalises succession, subversion, terrorism and conspiracy with foreign troops. If convicted, laic faces the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Timothy Owen KC, a London-based legal veteran specializing in criminal law and human rights, was granted court clearance to represent Lai last month, despite objections from the City Secretary for Justice and the Hong Kong Bar Association.
At the time, the judge said the case would be important for “the development of local case law on the application of national security law and the protection of freedom of expression”, adding that it was in the public interest to have a leading foreign specialist as Owen involved in the process.
Faced with an appeal from the justice minister, judges at the Court of Appeals Wednesday endorsed the earlier ruling and said public perception of fairness in the trial was important to the administration of justice.
“The court must be flexible and sensible to reach a decision that best suits the public interest in this application,” they said.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to China in 1997, uses the same common law jurisdiction as the UK. In addition to serving on the city’s courts for foreign judges, lawyers from other jurisdictions practicing common law may also work within the city’s legal system, especially when their expertise is needed in some cases.
Owen, who works in Matrix Chambers, has appeared in previous high-profile cases in Hong Kong. He represented British banker Rurik Jutting, who was convicted of the murder of two women, and a police officer who appealed his conviction for assaulting a pro-democracy activist during protests in 2014.
Lai is already serving a 20-month prison sentence for his role in unauthorized meetings. He also expects a conviction for his fraud conviction on November 24. Those charges are separate from national security law.
His legal team previously asked the United Nations to investigate his imprisonment and multiple criminal charges as “legal harassment” in order to punish him for speaking out.
The entry into force of the security law has led to the arrests of many prominent democracy activists. It has also damaged confidence in the future of the international financial center, with more and more young professionals responding to dwindling freedoms by moving abroad.