Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and champion of free speech and democracy, went on trial in Hong Kong Monday after a year-long delay in the proceedings. He’s been charged with several crimes, including colluding with foreign forces, but supporters around the world say his real offense has been criticizing China’s ruling Communist Party and its crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong.
Lai has been in prison for the past three years on charges filed under China’s sweeping new national security law. If convicted on the charges, Lai could face life in prison.
Reporters clustered around the van transporting Lai as it arrived at the courthouse on Monday. His backers, along with foreign diplomats, were there, too, hoping to get a seat at the historic trial.
In the early 2000s, Lai was a rich, powerful , fearless critic of China and the central Chinese government’s steady erosion of freedoms in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
His newspaper, the widely read Apple Daily, was just as critical.
Lai knew he was on thin ice, but he refused to leave Hong Kong even as China cemented its control over the region.
“If disgrace myself, I discredit Apple Daily and also undermine the solidarity of the democratic movement,” he once told The Associated Press. “It’s something, I have to take responsibility.”
By the summer of 2020, a year after unprecedented pro-democracy protests swept across Hong Kong, the authorities had had enough. About 100 police officers raided Apple Daily’s offices, shut the newspaper down and took Lai into custody. He’s been locked up ever since.
His trial is now underway, but his son Sebastian isn’t expecting justice.
“There’s no jury. The security minister boasted of 100% conviction rate. So, this is not going to be a fair trial,” he told the AP. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Rights group Amnesty International agrees. It has dismissed the trial as a sham, and observers inside and outside Hong Kong believe the point of the exercise is really to ensure that a muzzled Jimmy Lai spends the rest of his days in prison.