November 15, 2022
The Honorable John Lee
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, People’s Republic of China
Chief Executive’s Office
Tamar, Hong Kong
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Dear Chief Executive Lee,
We, the undersigned press freedom and human rights groups, are writing to request your leadership to cease targeted persecution against Jimmy Lai, the 74-year-old founder of Next Digital Limited and the Apple Daily newspaper, release him from jail, and immediately drop all charges against him.
On December 1, Lai will stand trial without a jury on collusion charges under the national security law. He has been behind bars for more than 22 months since December 2020 after being charged under the national security law.
Prior to your inauguration in July, you promised freedom of the press in Hong Kong would continue to be protected by the city’s Basic Law and meet the international standards of media freedom. You reiterated in a September speech at a National Day media reception that Hong Kong is governed by rule of law, and that freedom of speech and of the media are fully guaranteed under the Basic Law.
We welcomed your commitment to uphold press freedom and your remarks recognizing journalists as a force “for societal progression and the improvement of people’s lives through objective and fair reporting and commentary.”
But these promises ring hollow when Lai, one of Hong Kong’s best-known media figures, sits behind bars for his commitment to critical journalism. Such journalism is essential to your efforts in cementing Hong Kong’s role as a global financial hub, for which a free press and judicial independence are vital elements, and to comply with international legal obligations to uphold press freedom.
Lai’s imprisonment and the jailing of other Hong Kong journalists, including several executives of the now-defunct Apple Daily, have seriously undermined the confidence in the city’s judiciary and the rule of law.
Lai was first sentenced to 14 months in prison in April 2021 for “organizing and knowingly taking part in unauthorized assemblies” in August 2019. The following month, a court sentenced him to another 14 months for “organizing an unauthorized assembly” in October 2019 and ordered Lai to serve a total of 20 months’ imprisonment.
In December 2021, Lai was sentenced again to 13 months in prison for “inciting others” to take part in an unauthorized assembly in 2020.
While the judge ordered the sentence to run concurrently to the previous sentences he was serving, Lai has now been behind bars for more than 22 months, exceeding the 20-month term he was previously given.
As well as his upcoming national security trial, a court in October found Lai guilty of fraud for allegedly violating the lease of Next Digital’s headquarters, although it is clear that he was targeted in retaliation for his journalism.
Also in October, another court upheld a ruling that police could search Lai’s two mobile phones that stored journalistic information, violating the basic principles of press freedom and journalistic confidentiality.
In addition, his international legal team at Doughty Street Chambers has faced intimidation and harassment through anonymous emails, warning the lawyers against traveling to Hong Kong to defend Lai or risk facing action under the subversion law.
We welcome your pledge to enhance the confidence of the public and the international community in Hong Kong’s rule of law in your first policy address as chief executive. As the chairperson of the Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region that oversees the Hong Kong Police Force’s national security department, exercising your authority to drop the charges against Jimmy Lai and free him immediately is a crucial step toward regaining global confidence in Hong Kong.
Time is of the essence for your government to act and we strongly urge you to do so now.
Association of Taiwan Journalists
Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation
Committee to Protect Journalists
Croatian PEN Centre
Human Rights Watch
Independent Chinese PEN Center
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
PEN Club Français
PEN Türkiye Center
Peoples’ Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), India
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Taiwan Association for China Human Rights
Trieste PEN Centre
Vietnamese League for Human Rights in Switzerland
This content originally appeared on Committee to Protect Journalists and was authored by Jennifer Dunham.