HONG KONG, CHINA — Hong Kong has accused Britain of interfering in its legal system after a UK minister met this week with lawyers representing jailed pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai.
Lai, the 75-year-old founder of the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper, is facing up to life in prison for “colluding with foreign forces” — a crime under the security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong to quash huge democracy protests in 2019.
His trial, scheduled for December last year, was pushed to September after Hong Kong authorities asked Beijing to step in and bar Lai from being represented by a London lawyer.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office confirmed that Minister for Asia Anne-Marie Trevelyan met Lai’s legal team on Tuesday, calling it “the right approach” for the case.
“The foreign office is providing support, or has provided support, to Jimmy Lai for some time,” a spokesperson said.
“We’ve been clear that the Hong Kong authorities must end their targeting of pro-democracy voices, including Jimmy Lai.”
Hong Kong’s government said it “opposes and condemns” acts by Lai’s legal team and the UK government, “which attempted to undermine the rule of law of Hong Kong and interfere with the independent exercise of judicial power”.
“We will never tolerate, and strongly deplore, any form of interference by any foreign power or individual with the judicial proceedings and internal affairs” of Hong Kong, officials said in a statement late on Tuesday.
Regina Ip, the convenor of Hong Kong’s cabinet, said Lai’s lawyers were “really stupid” to ask Sunak’s administration to intervene.
“Inconceivable that lawyers supposedly wedded to the rule of law would ask for executive Interference,” Ip wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
“Their outrageous move vindicates Beijing’s decision to ask Hong Kong’s chief executive to bar foreign lawyers from national security cases.”
Last month, China’s top lawmaking body gave Hong Kong leader John Lee the power to bar foreign lawyers from national security trials.
Critics said the decision gave the city’s national security committee — controlled by top Hong Kong and Beijing officials — carte blanche to overrule local courts and was a new blow to judicial independence.
The issue was first raised when Lai hired senior British lawyer Tim Owen to defend him, a move multiple local judges approved over objections by the government.
Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong have hinted at the possibility of amending local laws to impose a blanket ban on foreign lawyers from taking part in national security cases.