Hong Kong plummets in rights index as Jimmy Lai’s lawyers testify at United Nations

An international rights group that monitors civil society around the world has downgraded Hong Kong in its global monitor citing a “systematic crackdown on dissent” under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in 2020.

Civicus Monitor said in its annual survey of civil survey that crimes under the law are “vaguely defined and have become catch-all offenses to prosecute activists and critics with heavy penalties.”

More than 200 people have been arrested under the security law and dozens of civil society groups and trade unions have disbanded or relocated since the law came into place, the report said.

“Activists have also been criminalized for sedition, while around 3,000 protesters have been prosecuted for their participation in peaceful gatherings and protests, such as Tiananmen Square vigils which until recently were held annually,” it said. “Independent and pro-democracy media outlets have been targeted with raids and forced to close and journalists have been criminalized.”

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Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van in Hong Kong, on Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: Reuters

Testimony in Geneva

The report came as witnesses testified to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva over ongoing criticisms and concerns about the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities’ treatment of jailed pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, whose Next Digital media empire and its flagship Apple Daily newspaper were forced to close amid a national security investigation that saw several senior editors and Lai arrested for “collusion with a foreign power.”

Lai’s London-based lawyer, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, told the council that the law has been used to “target and imprison journalists, writers, lawyers, and peaceful pro-democracy campaigners,” her law firm, Doughty Street Chambers, said in a statement on its website.

“The National Security Law (NSL) is breathtakingly broad: virtually anything could be deemed a threat to ‘national security’ under its provisions, and it can apply to anyone on the planet, even if they have never stepped foot in Hong Kong or China,” Gallagher said.

“Mr Lai has already been imprisoned for over two years for peaceful pro-democracy activities. He now faces life in prison under the NSL for his writings and for Apple Daily’s writings about the protection of democracy,” she said.

Lai’s son Sebastian called on United Nations human rights experts to call out “Hong Kong’s abuse of the law to persecute my father and his colleagues and others for exercising their rights to free speech and a free press,” according to the statement.

“It is time for the United Nations to condemn those actions, and do everything in its power to secure my father’s release, and restore hope to Hong Kong,” he said.

Criminalized for expression

Another member of Lai’s London legal team, Jennifer Robinson, said journalists working for the Apple Daily and other media outlets had faced unlawful detention and prosecution under the crackdown.

“They are being criminalized for exercising their internationally protected right to freedom of expression,” she told the council.

The International Federation of Journalists called on the Hong Kong government to drop all charges against Lai, and other journalists and media workers facing prosecution for their work.

“Journalism is not a crime,” the group said, calling on the United Nations to put pressure on Hong Kong and China over press freedom in the city.

The Hong Kong government said it strongly opposed foreign interference with judicial proceedings in national security cases.

“The government ... is firmly opposed to the acts of the so-called ‘international legal team’ for Lai Chee-ying and his son Sebastian Lai ... to scandalize the Hong Kong National Security Law and the judicial system of [Hong Kong],” it said in a statement dated March 15.

“Making a statement with the intent to interfere with or obstruct the course of justice, or engaging in conduct with the same intent, is very likely to constitute the offense of criminal contempt of court or the offense of perverting the course of justice,” it said.

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Sebastian Lai called on United Nations human rights experts to call out “Hong Kong’s abuse of the law to persecute my father and his colleagues and others.” Credit: Lu Xi file photo

‘Attempt to beleaguer China’

The Communist Party-backed English-language Global Times newspaper said “anti-China forces and countries” were using the United Nations to attack China.

“Some anti-China forces and countries are abusing the platform ... to spread disinformation about China ... in an attempt to beleaguer China by hyping human rights violation topics,” it said, citing testimony given by victims of human rights abuses from Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

“Are these ‘victims’ credible or just actors hired by anti-China forces to orchestrate stunts to smear China? Have their stories ... been fabricated to amplify the anti-China narrative?" the paper said in a March 15 article.

Former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, who is now in exile in Australia, said it was important for victims of the law to be heard internationally.

“Jimmy Lai’s case is unusual in that one of his family members came forward,” Hui said. “Breaking the international silence of victims ... is more important than the views of advocates, scholars or experts.”

“The international community is more likely to listen to what family members [of victims] say, so this is of great significance,” he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Matt Reed.