Two newspapers backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party have hit out at jailed pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai's hiring of a British lawyer for his forthcoming national security trial, implying that Beijing could hold the trial in mainland China, commentators told RFA.
The Court of Appeal ruled on Nov. 21 that Lai should be allowed to hire Tim Owen KC to defend him on charges relating to "seditious publications," as well as "collusion with foreign powers to endanger national security," upholding the decisions of two lower courts.
Justices Susan Kwan, Carlye Chu and Thomas Au said there was a clear case for giving Owen permission to represent Lai, and that there was no valid basis to interfere with the exercise of the judge’s discretion.
"Public perception of fairness in the trial is of vital importance to the administration of justice," the court judgment said. "It is clearly in the public interest to grant the application for admission on grounds of public perception as well as the other grounds that have been canvassed."
Lai will be tried by a panel of three national security judges approved by the government in a trial scheduled to begin on Dec. 1.
However, the government has applied to appeal once more, this time to the Court of Final Appeal, and the pro-Beijing media has given a veiled warning that Lai could face trial in a mainland Chinese court if the decision doesn't go the government's way.
The Court of Final Appeal has adjourned its decision on whether to allow the government to proceed with the appeal until Nov. 28, the Hong Kong Free Press news website reported on Friday.
Citing "many experts and scholars," the Ta Kung Pao said in its online edition that the case "involves major matters of right and wrong," warning that Beijing was unlikely to "sit idly by" on the matter.
It quoted pro-Beijing politician and lawyer Holden Chow as calling on judges to "uphold national security in accordance with the law."
"The British lawyer was hired to challenge the Hong Kong national security law with Western human rights standards, to whip up Western public opinion, and to put pressure on the Hong Kong and Chinese governments," the paper quoted Chow as saying.
"Hong Kong courts should absolutely not approve him ... to defend [Lai] in Hong Kong," Chow told the paper.
Justice secretary Paul Lam declined to comment when asked about the appeal by journalists on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po quoted the government's argument that it wasn't in the public interest to allow foreign nationals to defend in a case involving matters of "national security."
"Allowing overseas barristers to participate in Hong Kong cases runs counter to the legislative purpose of the Hong Kong National Security Law, which is to prevent foreign countries or external forces from interfering in Hong Kong affairs and to protect state secrets from being leaked," the paper quoted the appeal application as saying.
"Unless an application can prove that there are extremely special circumstances, the employment of overseas barristers in Hong Kong National Security Law cases should not be approved," the department of justice was quoted as saying in its argument.
The papers' weighing in on the matter comes a day before the appeal is scheduled to be heard at the Court of Final Appeal on Friday before a panel of three judges.
Current affairs commentator Sang Pu, who is also a qualified lawyer, said the papers are blatantly trying to put pressure on the Court of Final Appeal, making a mockery of the principle of judicial independence.
Political denunciations in Communist Party-backed media are increasingly being used to target civil society groups, journalists and NGOs in Hong Kong.
The denunciations usually focus on accusations that a given organization has done something that could be in breach of a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the CCP from July 1, 2020, and are frequently followed by police investigations and arrests, or other actions in line with the papers' recommendations.
"This is obviously a form of intense pressure being put on the Court of Final Appeal," current affairs commentator Sang Pu told RFA. "They are trying to influence the judiciary with overwhelming public opinion and political tactics."
"It's not just about trying to sway public opinion; it's like the unofficial voice of the party-state, while all the while the leaders stay silent," he said. "It's basically the same kind of tactic as during the Cultural Revolution,” which ran from 1966 to 1976.
“This is a threat”
Sang said the papers both quoted Willy Fu of the Beijing-backed Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation as saying that the government had the right to take over jurisdiction of the case under Article 55 of the national security law, if the Court of Final Appeal upholds the decision to allow Owen to defend Lai.
Fu said the ultimate power to interpret the law rests with the National People's Congress Standing Committee in Beijing. Sang said this means Beijing could order the trial to be held in mainland China if it deems it necessary in the interest of national security.
"This is a threat, which is an obstruction of justice," Sang said. "Everyone is allowed to comment on the court's decision, but if courts are threatened with the loss of regulatory immunity for arriving at a particular judgment, then that's ... coercion."
"It has an impact on the independence and perceived fairness of the judiciary, which is pretty suspect," he said.
Lai's trial comes after six top former executives at the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper pleaded guilty to "collusion with foreign powers" earlier this week.
The pro-democracy Apple Daily and Lai's Next Digital media company were forced to close in June 2021 after their assets were frozen during a national security police raid on its headquarters in Tseung Kwan O.
Cheung and the other five defendants were arrested in the days and weeks that followed, while Lai is currently in prison serving sentences for fraud and "illegal assembly."
He will plead not guilty to the charges against him.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Cheryl Tung for RFA Cantonese.