PARIS, FRANCE — The son of Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media tycoon jailed since 2020 in Hong Kong, has called on Britain to step up pressure for his father’s release.
Jimmy Lai, a 75-year-old British citizen and founder of the now-shuttered tabloid Apple Daily, is awaiting trial for alleged “collusion with foreign forces” — an offence under a security law Beijing imposed in 2020 to quell dissent in the wake of protests.
In an interview with AFP during a trip to Paris, his son Sebastien Lai said the British government needed to make his father’s case “a political priority” in its dealings with China and the Hong Kong authorities over the former British colony.
“So long as you have a person like Jimmy Lai behind bars it can’t be business as usual,” he said.
In the latest twist in the Jimmy Lai case, a Hong Kong court last month dismissed his challenge of a ruling that banned a British lawyer from representing him, a decision that observers said illustrated Beijing’s ability to trump Hong Kong courts despite the city’s guarantee of judicial independence from the mainland.
Sebastien Lai, who is 28 and has worked for his family’s property development business in Taiwan for the past three years, said Britain owed all its citizens protection, including his father.
“If they don’t stand firm in the protection that this citizen is guaranteed, in a place that they do business with, then, to their great shame, what is the point of having a passport? What is the point of being a citizen?” he said.
Jimmy Lai is facing up to life in prison if convicted.
His trial, scheduled for December last year, was pushed to September.
At the start of this year, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak vowed that his government would resist any “undermining” of a deal guaranteeing Hong Kong citizens existing rights and freedoms for 50 years after Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997.
But Sebastien Lai said London needed to do more. “I’m not asking for people to break my father out of prison or what not,” he said.
“I’m asking the UK to speak out on my father’s case, to put pressure on Hong Kong, because every single person in the free world sees this as something unacceptable.”
Hong Kong’s common law system, inherited from British colonial rule, is distinct from mainland China’s. But Sebastien Lai said Hong Kong was now using it to justify its political actions.
“What the Hong Kong government is doing right now is using the UK legal system as a moral laundromat,” Sebastien Lai said.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a France-based media freedom body, has helped bring Jimmy Lai’s case to global attention, including with a petition signed by 116 media leaders calling for his release.
On RSF’s press freedom ranking of 180 states, Hong Kong is now number 140, a drop of 122 spots in 20 years, the organisation said.
Six other Apple Daily employees risk life in prison on the basis of the security law, according to RSF.
Jimmy Lai has been behind bars since December 2020 and has since been sentenced to more than seven years for unauthorised assembly and fraud.
“Under any legal system with a rulebook, he’s not guilty,” Sebastien Lai said.
“In the end, this is about a man who gave up all that he’s worked for, all the tangible stuff that he’s worked for, for something intangible like liberty,” he said.
Earlier this month, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a petition calling for his release.
While campaigning for support in France, Sebastien Lai met with officials at the foreign ministry, Paris city hall and lawmakers from the Senate and National Assembly.
“France understands the struggle of a man who gave everything for liberty,” he said, adding that his family had strong ties to France where Jimmy Lai got married.
Sebastien Lai said he last saw his father in August 2020, shortly before leaving Hong Kong. “He’s 75. The clock is ticking.”