Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai enters not guilty plea in landmark national security case

The pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai has pleaded not guilty to three charges of sedition and collusion with foreign forces as his landmark Hong Kong national security trial resumed on Tuesday.

The 76-year-old UK citizen is facing the prospect of life in prison if found guilty of the charges brought against him under draconian new national security laws.

Mr Lai is the most high profile of nearly 300 people arrested under the Beijing-imposed security laws — criticised by Western democracies as a weapon to throttle dissent.

Dressed in a navy blazer, the founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper walked inside the West Kowloon Law Courts building waving and smiling at family members and supporters. He was flanked by three prison guards.

Mr Lai formally pleaded "not guilty" in English to the charges read to him, shortly after the court rejected a last-ditch attempt by his counsel to throw out a sedition charge.

He was arrested and charged with two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, including calling for sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials, following Beijing's crackdown on activists following the 2019 democracy movement in the Asian financial hub.

Prosecutor Anthony Chau called Mr Lai "the mastermind" of the movement, who used his newspaper as a "platform to pursue his political agenda and orchestrated a conspiracy with the so-called democracy and freedom advocacy group Stand with Hong Kong Fight for Freedom", according to the AFP news agency.

The prosecutor also referred to Mr Lai as a "radical political figure", accusing him of conspiring with others to "bring into hatred and stir up opposition to the government" in an effort to undermine national security.

Mr Chau cited 161 articles from Apple Daily dated between April 2019 and June 2021 as "examples of seditious publications" which he said were aimed at polluting people's minds.

The defendant was accused of providing financial support to Stand With Hong Kong and lobbying foreign countries, including the US, the UK, Australia and Japan, for sanctions against China.

Mr Lai's trial began in December, more than a year after it was scheduled to commence after the city administration appealed to Beijing to block his attempt to hire a British lawyer.

The proceedings are expected to last 80 days and have been condemned by both the UK and the US as an "attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of [Mr Lai’s] rights to freedom of expression and association".

Hong Kong, once seen as a bastion of media freedom in Asia, ranked 140th out of 180 countries and territories in Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index.