By Jessie Pang and Edward Cho
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Several overseas activists, right campaigners and politicians named in a national security trial for Hong Kong democrat Jimmy Lai refuted allegations levelled by a government prosecutor in court that they colluded with him.
Lai, 76, founder of now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and a leading critic of the Chinese Communist Party, faces two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces – including calling for sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials – under a China-imposed national security law.
He is also charged with conspiracy to publish seditious publications.
Before the trial opened, a supporter shouted “hang in there” to Lai, as he sat inside a glass dock surrounded by prison guards.
Prosecutor Anthony Chau on Wednesday presented dozens of news clippings of Apple Daily, including news reports of a speech by Lai and commentaries that were critical of China.
Chau also cited Apple Daily interviews with frontline pro-democracy activists and anti-government advertisements.
Chau had earlier accused Lai of conspiring with activist Andy Li, a paralegal Chan Tsz-wah, exiled activist Finn Lau, Britain-based rights campaigner Luke de Pulford, Japanese politician Shiori Yamao, U.S. financier Bill Browder and others to lobby foreign countries for sanctions.
Some rejected these allegations.
“Jimmy had nothing whatsoever to do with any of my work on Hong Kong at all. But Jimmy’s case isn’t about truth. It’s about delivering Beijing’s narrative,” said Luke de Pulford, the head of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), on X.
IPAC, a group of over 300 lawmakers in 33 countries, condemned attempts to implicate several of its members in the “sham” trial and said in a statement it was an “unacceptable infringement of the rights of foreign citizens.”
Hong Kong exiled activist Finn Lau who is now based in Britain also said on X that Lai was not involved in any of his advocacy work for human rights and democracy and called for the immediate release of Lai and others.
At least seven others have been alleged as Lai’s agents or intermediaries requesting sanctions, including former U.S. Army General Jack Keane, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former U.S. consul general to Hong Kong James Blair Cunningham and the founder of Hong Kong Watch Benedict Rogers.
“The idea that it is a crime for him (Lai) to speak to politicians, business leaders, international media and activists, as well as myself as a former diplomat, is ludicrous in the extreme,” James Cunningham said in a statement.
Benedict Rogers said on X that Lai’s alleged criminal interactions with various foreigners “ought to be regarded as entirely normal legitimate activity” for a newspaper publisher. The trial demonstrated “just how dramatically and extensively Hong Kong’s basic freedoms and the rule of law have been dismantled,” he added.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Commissioner’s office of China’s Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong described Lai as an “agent and pawn of foreign anti-China forces, who has blatantly colluded with external forces to endanger national security.”
The statement also criticised some foreigners named in the trial for “rebelling against China”, slandering China’s policies in the city and “interfering with Hong Kong’s judicial justice”.
Both the United States and Britain have called for Lai’s immediate release, saying his trial is politically motivated.
Hong Kong authorities dispute claims that Lai will not enjoy a fair trial, saying all are equal before the law and the national security law has brought stability to Hong Kong after mass protests in 2019.
(Additional reporting by Dorothy Kam; Editing by James Pomfret and Stephen Coates)