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Jimmy Lai remains in jail despite overturned conviction

A court in Hong Kong has cleared the jailed Catholic publisher Jimmy Lai of the crime of organizing a 2019 pro-democracy demonstration. But a long-time friend of Lai told The Pillar that the decision is meaningless while the publisher remains in prison.

Lai, who has been in prison since 2020, was one of seven pro-democracy advocates cleared of the charge of organizing a demonstration in the wake of mass protests following the 2019 bid by the Hong Kong government to pass legislation that would have allowed political detainees to be deported to mainland China to face trial. 

Jimmy Lai Chee-ying arrives at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts, May 2020. Credit: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo

On Monday, the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions for organizing a protest in 2019, which were originally imposed in April 2021, but upheld the convictions of all the defendants for taking part in the same illegal demonstration.


Despite the overturning of the conviction, Lai remains in prison. He has been the subject of a “marathon” cycle of court hearings and prison terms since 2020, and the government forced the closure of his newspaper, Apple Daily, in 2021.

Apple Daily was one of the last pro-democracy newspapers in Hong Kong publicly critical of the erosion of civil liberties protected in the Basic Law. The newspaper was forced to close after the government froze assets belonging to Lai and his media company, and raided the newspaper’s offices, arresting several editors.

When the National Security Law was imposed, Jimmy Lai called it the “death knell” of rule of law in Hong Kong. Soon after he was arrested and jailed on national security charges, he called his imprisonment “the pinnacle of [his] life.”

Lai has repeatedly cited his Catholic faith as a motivating and sustaining force in his ongoing trials.

Mark Simon, a former senior executive at Apple Daily and a longtime friend of Lai’s, told The Pillar that the court’s decision to overturn the conviction for organizing an illegal demonstration was essentially irrelevant in the wider context of Lai’s treatment by local authorities.

“An acquittal from a bogus charge after serving the prison time and while in jail on another bogus charge isn’t really all that helpful to Jimmy Lai in any meaningful sense,” Simon said.

“It’s like Santa bringing you the batteries when you're 10 for a toy that never worked that he gave you when you were 6,” he said, “Put another way, it’s like Pontius Pilate sending a memo explaining the cross carrying was 200 yards too long, but the crucifixion remains valid.”

In addition to the slew of prosecutions and prison sentences to which he has been subjected, Lai also faced official intervention to block him from appointing his preferred lawyer to represent him in court.

Although two local courts have upheld Lai’s right to be represented by a top UK lawyer, Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu appealed to the mainland government last year to prevent Luke Owen, a UK national, from representing Lai.

Because of its historical ties to the UK and UK law, British lawyers and judges have long served in the Hong Kong legal system. Lee has sought to block Owen’s appointment, arguing that foreign nationals should not be allowed to take part in national security trials.

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In January, the mainland government ruled that Hong Kong political executives, not judges, have the final say on which lawyers are qualified to appear in court in national security cases, clearing the way for Owen’s rejection.

Since his initial arrest, Jimmy Lai has received numerous awards and accolades from both Catholic and secular institutions, including the 2020 Freedom of the Press Award from Reporters Without Borders.

Months of mass protests over the proposed extradition law led to the imposition of a controversial National Security Law on Honk Kong by the mainland government. That law has curtailed significantly the exercise of civil liberties in Hong Kong and led to the arrest of several prominent pro democracy advocates, including Lai, as well as the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen.

Other prominent Catholics to have been arrested include Agnes Chow, the pro-democracy activist, was released from jail in 2021 after serving a six-month prison sentence also for the crime of attending an “unlawful” assembly in 2019.

Earlier this month, Bobo Yip, former chairwoman of the Diocese of Hong Kong’s Justice and Peace Commission, was also arrested on national security grounds.

The current Bishop of Hong Kong, Bishop Stephen Chow, SJ, was installed in December, 2021, after a long process to appoint a successor to the most recent bishop, Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, who died unexpectedly in 2019.

At the time of his installation, Chow said that he had previously attended banned public gatherings in Hong Kong, including a prayer vigil to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which he has called a formative event in his life.

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