UN experts call on China to immediately release Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai

Experts from the UN called on China to drop all charges against Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai and release him immediately.

Mr Lai, a 76-year-old UK citizen and founder of now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, is facing the prospect of life in prison if found guilty of sedition and collusion charges brought against him under the draconian national security laws.

He pleaded not guilty to the charges earlier this month.

"Jimmy Lai’s arrest, detention and series of criminal proceedings over the past few years appear to be directly related to his criticism of the Chinese government and his support for democracy in Hong Kong SAR,” four UN experts said on Monday.

The statement was signed by special rapporteurs Irene Khan, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Alice Jill Edwards, and Margaret Satterthwaite.

It comes amid the ongoing trial at a Hong Kong court, which is expected to last nearly 80 days and well into March.

The trial is being closely monitored by Western democracies and condemned by the UK and the US as an "attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of (Mr Lai’s) rights to freedom of expression and association”.

"We are alarmed by the multiple and serious violations of Jimmy Lai’s freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, and his right to a fair trial, including the denial of access to a lawyer of his own choosing and the handpicking of judges by the authorities,” they added.

The experts previously raised their concerns with authorities in 2020 and 2023, according to the UN's human rights body.

"We expressed our concerns about the National Security Law before it was enacted and will continue to do so," they added.

Mr Lai is the most high profile of nearly 300 people arrested under the Beijing-imposed security laws criticised by rights activists as a weapon to throttle dissent. He is facing charges of colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security and conspiring with others to release seditious publications.

Mr Lai has already spent more than 1,000 days in detention since he was arrested in August 2020.

China's human rights record will be reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group on Tuesday in Geneva.

It is a "once-in-a-five-year chance, which must not be missed, to raise Mr Lai’s case on the UN level in the full view of the international community", said Benedict Rogers, co-founder of Hong Kong Watch.

"... Mr Lai’s case must be a priority not only for the UN Special Rapporteurs, but also for UN Member States, to stand up against violations of human rights and the dismantling of the rule of law in Hong Kong."

Meanwhile, on the day 14 of the trial, a former Apple Daily publisher said Mr Lai believed it was not a big deal that protesters wreaked havoc in shops during the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Cheung Kim-hung, who worked for Mr Lai for nearly three decades, reportedly told the court that the media mogul found young protesters "brave" and didn't find shops being vandalised during the agitation to be an "issue".

“He believed the teenagers were fearless and committed to the social movement,” Mr Cheung said, according to The Standard.

Mr Cheung previously testified that his boss had instructed the editorial staff to use the newspaper to encourage people to join protests in Hong Kong and draw the attention of Western nations.

He is one of the six former Apple Daily staff to plead guilty in November 2022 to conspiracy to commit collusion with a foreign country.

Other prosecution witnesses include former associate publisher Chan Pui-man, former editorial writer Yeung Ching-kee, activist Andy Li and paralegal Chan Tsz-wah. They have all pleaded guilty and will be sentenced at the end of the trial.