Jimmy Lai back in court over Tiananmen memorial

News: Hong Kong

The incarcerated Hong Kong Catholic businessman and media owner Jimmy Lai appeared in court Monday, to plead not guilty on charges of unlawful assembly, after the government charged that Lai encouraged Hong Kongers to participate in a banned Tiananmen Square Massacre memorial vigil held last year. 

Lai faces charges in Hong Kong alongside seven others. Lai was arrested in August 2020 under the terms of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which criminalizes a range of previously protected civil rights, including free speech.

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Lai’s former publication, the now-closed Apple Daily, was one of the last media outlets in Hong Kong with a pro-democracy editorial line. It was shuttered in June, after editors and journalists were targeted for arrest and said to be a danger to “national security,” while the company's assets were frozen.

The case is being heard before Judge Amanda Woodcock, the same judge who in April handed Lai a four-month sentence for attending a Christian prayer vigil in August, 2019, on top of a one-year term after he pled guilty to making public statements judged to have invited foriegn interference in Hong Kong affairs.

The year-long sentence was reduced by one month for Lai’s guilty plea, and by an additional month because of his age — he is 72 — though he could face months of additional prison time if convicted again. 

Last year, the Beijing government imposed a sweeping National Security Law on Hong Kong, criminalizing many forms of free speech and leading to the arrest and imprisonment of several prominent Catholics, including Lai. 

Although the legislation technically came into force on July 1, 2020, the government banned the traditional June 4 vigil held to commemorate the killing of hundreds of pro-reform demonstrators by Chinese government forces in June 1989. 

Until local authorities moved last year to ban the annual candlelit vigil in Victoria Park, Hong Kong was the only Chinese territory where events marking the massacre have been permitted.

The political situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated steadily over the last two years. 

In 2019, the government of the “special administrative region” attempted to bring in legislation that would have allowed Hong Kongers accused of certain crimes to be extradited to the mainland for trial. After nearly a year of wide-spread demonstrations by pro-democracy activists, which brought parts of the city to a standstill and triggered a massive police backlash, the legislation was withdrawn. 

In 2020, the mainland government imposed a new National Security Law on Hong Kong. The law effectively criminalized political opposition to the Communist government as “secessionist activity,” and triggered further public demonstrations and a sweeping crackdown on free speech, including the arrest and imprisonment of several pro-democracy activists and journalists, many of them Catholics.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, who retired as Bishop of Hong Kong has previously called the arrest and prosecution of Jimmy Lai part of a campaign of “political intimidation” against journalists and pro-civil rights activists.

“Jimmy Lai is obviously the one who runs the only newspaper which is still completely free,” said Zen in December. “There is a clear policy direction: suppress the freedom of expression.”

In May, the Vatican announced Fr. Steven Chow, SJ, as the new Bishop of Hong Kong after the diocese has been without a permanent leader for more than two years, following the January 2019 death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung.

During his first press conference following the announcement by the Vatican that he would be the new leader of the Hong Kong diocese, Chow confirmed that he too had participated in the banned event in Victoria Park last year, but that he was unlikely to attend similar events in the future because of the changed political situation.

“There are many ways to commemorate: in the past I went to a public meeting. But there are times when I can't go there,” Chow said. “So, I pray for China and for all those who died in 1989.”

Lai’s trial is set to resume November 12.

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