Hong Kong’s leader said he’ll ask Beijing to determine whether foreign lawyers can work on national security cases in the city, a move with repercussions for the upcoming trial of jailed pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai.
The announcement came Monday, hours after the Court of Final Appeal (CFA), the city’s highest court, upheld a lower court’s verdict to allow British barrister Timothy Owen to represent Lai in a landmark national security case that had been due to start on Thursday.
Lai, 74, is the most high-profile critic of Beijing charged under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison on charges of colluding with foreign forces. He also faces one charge under a colonial-era sedition law.
The government had sought a “blanket ban” on foreign lawyers working on national security cases, except in exceptional circumstances, which would have seen Owen removed from the case.
When the CFA ruling went against the government, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said Monday he would ask China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) to intervene.
According to a statement, Lee wants Beijing to decide whether lawyers who are “not qualified to practise generally” in Hong Kong can participate in national security cases.
Lee’s move follows repeated attempts by Hong Kong’s Department of Justice to prevent Owen from representing Lai.
“At present, there are no effective means to ensure that a counsel from overseas will not have conflict of interest because of his (national interest),” Lee told a news conference. “And there are also no means to ensure that he has not been coerced, compromised or in any way controlled by foreign governments, associations or persons.”
This would be the sixth time the NPCSC has made an interpretation on Hong Kong’s laws since the city was handed over from Britain to China 1997.
Lee said the government will seek an adjournment to Lai’s trial during the process.
Lai, whose pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily was forced to shut down after a police raid last year, has been remanded in custody for almost two years. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison in 2021 for participating in an unauthorized protest.
In August, the tycoon requested to hire Owen to lead his defense, which sparked a legal debate over whether foreign lawyers should take up legal representation on national security law cases.
Since the handover, Hong Kong has maintained the common law system inherited from British rule.
Its independent judiciary and rule of law have long been deemed key to the city’s success as a global financial center. The city’s legal system allows overseas judges in the city’s courts, and lawyers from other common law jurisdictions can work on cases where their expertise is needed.
However, China’s ruling Communist Party moved to bring Hong Kong in line with its authoritarian rule by bypassing the city’s legislature to implement the security law in response to anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019.
Cases under the legislation are handled by a dedicated branch of the Hong Kong police and designated national security judges, raising concern about Beijing’s potential influence on proceedings.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied criticism that the law has stifled freedoms, claiming instead it has restored order in the city after the 2019 protests.