Hong Kong threat to move Jimmy Lai case to China revives fears

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HONG KONG – A legal battle over Hong Kong’s effort to prosecute media tycoon Jimmy Lai on national security charges has made the once-unthinkable an imminent threat: moving sensitive cases to mainland Chinese courts.

While Beijing has asserted the right to take over “complex” cases involving foreign nations since imposing a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, it has so far not exercised the power. Instead, dozens of security cases are being prosecuted in local courts in the former British colony, where judges still wear wigs and observe English common law.

Lai’s foreign collusion case, however, is testing Beijing’s patience for Hong Kong’s legal traditions, including an emphasis on transparency, precedent, judicial independence and the rights of the accused. Those values were on display last week, when the city’s highest court ruled that the founder of the now defunct Apple Daily newspaper could hire a renowned UK-based lawyer to defend him.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, a Beijing appointee, responded by requesting China’s top legislative body to intervene and prevent lawyers based overseas from participating in such cases. Hong Kong’s sole representative on that body subsequently suggested that defendants who failed to find local lawyers could find their cases transferred to Chinese courts, where national security trials are speedier and more secretive. 

“If such difficulties really arise, they can be sent back to the mainland for trial,” Tam Yiu-chung, a member of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, told reporters Sunday in Hong Kong. 

Although Tam said such action would only be necessary in a “special case,” the threat illustrates the growing pressure on the judicial independence often cited as a reason for Hong Kong’s success as a global financial center. Local courts risk being overruled by Beijing or losing control of cases altogether if they break with the government.

The issue of transferring cases to mainland courts was at the centre of historically large and sometimes violent protests that erupted in 2019, which ultimately prompted Beijing to impose the security law and arrest Lai. Those demonstrations were sparked by since-withdrawn extradition legislation that would’ve allowed the city to send suspects in some criminal cases to th...

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