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Hong Kong’s national security ‘conspiracy’ trial of media mogul drags on

 Washington    — Media mogul Jimmy Lai’s trial for “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces” and “conspiracy to publish incitement” is set to drag on longer than the 80 days initially planned. As of Thursday, the 73rd day of the trial, only six of 14 scheduled witnesses had testified.   

Lai, the 76-year-old founder of Hong Kong’s Next Media and three companies owned by Apple Daily, which has been out of operation for nearly three years, was charged under the Hong Kong version of China’s national security law.  

Lai and his newspaper supported Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy movement, which the controversial law has been used to crush.  

If found guilty, he could be sentenced to life in prison. Lai, who is also a British citizen, has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.   

The trial, conducted by three judges designated under the national security law, began December 18, three years after Lai was arrested, and has been slower than expected. 

During cross-examination by the defense this week, Chan Tsz-wah, who was charged along with Lai but is now a witness for the prosecution, admitted he gave false statements to officers during interviews with police in October 2020, saying he was trying to distance himself from Lai and his personal assistant. 

Legal experts say the admission will make all sides view Chan’s testimony with caution, which could stretch out his questioning time.   

“So generally speaking, even if the court listens to and accepts his testimony, how much weight it will give his words is another matter,” Hong Kong lawyer Frankie Siu told VOA. 

Siu noted the trial is also slow because it is in English, while witness testimony is in Cantonese and has to be interpreted.   

Chung Kim Wah, former assistant professor in the Department of Applied Social Science at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told VOA the prosecutor may also be trying to bolster the government’s charges through a lengthy trial.   

“And through the statements of several accomplice witnesses, especially one or two of them, they hope to create the image that Jimmy Lai premeditated and colluded with the United States.” 

Rights groups and U.S. officials have condemned the trial as politically motivated.   

In April, two U.S. lawmakers proposed a bill to rename the street and mailing address for the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (Hong Kong’s de facto embassy in Washington) to “Jimmy Lai Way” to honor the jailed media entrepreneur. 

Lai’s case is the first in Hong Kong of “colluding with foreign forces” since Beijing enacted Hong Kong’s national security law in 2020. 

Beijing says the security law is needed to maintain stability, but has used it to arrest, jail and try hundreds of pro-democracy activists, stifling Hong Kong’s once vibrant civil society. 

In March, Hong Kong lawmakers unanimously and quickly approved their own sweeping national security law known as Basic Law Article 23, strengthening the government’s ability to silence dissent. 

VOA’s Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.