Q&A: Sebastien Lai on father Jimmy Lai’s Hong Kong ‘show trial’

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Taipei, Taiwan – The national security trial of Jimmy Lai, the jailed 75-year-old media mogul and founder of the now defunct Apple Daily newspaper, was supposed to start next month.

But it has now been delayed – again – until December 18.

Lai has been in custody since December 2020 and faces multiple charges related to Hong Kong’s democracy movement and protests.

Lai has already been sentenced to more than five and half years over a commercial lease at Apple Daily, and faces additional charges under the national security law (NSL) and sedition law, which dates from colonial times.

Lai was also denied his choice of lawyer – veteran British barrister Timothy Owen – for the NSL trial, which will be heard before a panel of three judges approved by Beijing.

Sebastien Lai, the tycoon’s 28-year-old son spoke to Al Jazeera in Taipei about his father’s situation and his hopes for the future.

Al Jazeera: What are your expectations for the upcoming trial?

Sebastien Lai: I’m optimistic, in a sense. Sebastien Lai, the tycoon’s 28-year-old son spoke to Al Jazeera in Taipei about his father’s situation and his hopes for the future. It’s not possible to convict someone for national security. He’s been jailed for three years and there’s nothing they can convict him of. But my expectation is that it’s an opportunity to see if Hong Kong and the Hong Kong government are people of their word, because at the end of the day, what was happening is very obvious to the free world.

They’re basically punishing a publisher, a 75-year-old man, for standing up for the freedoms that the Hong Kong state has and that were also promised during the handover. It’s really just that, and they are using a law on national security. The law is not retroactive. They’ve said it very clearly: once the law was passed, that’s what counts. If we just look at the situation from that perspective, based on the word of the people involved, none of them should be jailed. It’s believed that delaying the trial means you don’t really have a strong case. It’s also important that they want to keep it off the radar, which is why they do it at Christmas. That’s my conclusion on my part, but it makes sense.

Al Jazeera: How do you feel about the government’s decision to block your father’s choice of a British lawyer for his national security trial?[File: Louise Delmotte/AP Photo]

Lai:

I have no contact with the Hong Kong legal team. My contact is the international legal team. They are independent from each other. I think it’s a symptom of a much greater disease, namely the decay of the entire legal system. But more importantly, I think it’s just a symptom of a much greater disease, of a much greater decay of the whole legal system.

You can see that in dad getting 12 months for lighting a candle at a Tiananmen Square vigil, how recently he was acquitted for organising a protest that 1.7 million showed up at, but he had already carried out the sentence.Either way, I think the greater point is he served more than 10 months more than a year (referring to the time his father had already spent in prison) for participating in a protest with 1.7 million people, and on another level 1.7 million went out and protested

the government. Al Jazeera asks: What can countries like the United Kingdom, do about the situation with the foreign lawyer?

Lai :[against] There is a UK responsibility towards its citizens. They have a duty to their citizens, particularly when they are treated unfairly abroad. There’s another element, too: Hong Kong broke its promise about 50 years ago to hand over the territory to the UK. The UK must hold Hong Kong responsible, or at the very least, call Hong Kong to account for breaking pacts with other countries on a whim. Hong Kong used to be the model for freedom, and they still try to show that to the world. But they can’t if someone like my father is in prison. It’s not possible to say that they have a free press while sending 500 people on a raid of a newspaper. I don’t think you can treat the world as if they are stupid.

Jimmy Lai was first detained in December 2020 and brought to court in chains

Hong Kong has two options: either show that ‘we still want to be a part of the global economy’, – or continue doing this folly. I don’t believe you can treat people like idiots. Jimmy Lai was detained for the first time in December 2020, and brought before the court in chains. Hong Kong has the option to show the world ‘we want to still be a part the global economy’. They’ve already defamed my father and other political prisoners and sent them to jail. At 75, Dad has been in prison for three long years. And so I think at this point it’s just cruel.

I hope that the UK puts my dad’s case forward every time they negotiate with Hong Kong, they are vocal about this and tell China and Hong Kong that this is unacceptable behaviour and that it’s not acceptable for China and Hong Kong to step on the freedoms that the UK has, or the free world has.

Media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Apple Daily, walks to a prison van to head to court.
Al Jazeera: How’s your father doing in prison?[File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Lai:

Unfortunately I haven’t seen him in more than three years since I left in 2020. I saw some photos of him recently. Al Jazeera: Do you have a close relationship with him? People have challenging relationships with their fathers sometimes.

Lai:

I was very fortunate, I was incredibly lucky because by the time that I was born, dad was already a bit older. I’m 28 and he’s 75. He was 47 years old when I was conceived, so he was obviously very busy. But we spent a lot of quality time together as a child. I think he is someone I admire because he stands by his words and because if his actions. The BBC showed me videos of him before the handover. It was from 30 years ago. Are they going after you? He cries and says: “Hong Kong has given me everything. I will protect it.” It’s mind-blowing. It’s mind-blowing.The Apple Daily was a hugely popular paper in Hong Kong and people queued for its final edition in June 2021

Al Jazeera: How would you describe the Hong Kong of today compared with the one where you grew up?

Lai: I think for a lot of people Hong Kong was always a very hopeful place. It was a hopeful place. There were issues, but the institutions in place allowed anyone who was willing to put in a lot of effort to succeed. It was a rare place in the world, a Chinese society that enjoyed freedoms other than universal suffrage. In that sense, it was an experiment. Hong Kong was never a destination for mainland Chinese people, but rather mainland China came to Hong Kong. For me, that was always something to be proud of, because the freedoms we had and the hope we had made Hong Kong dynamic. The government has blurred so many lines in the law that people prefer to avoid it. I think that element of not being scared of what you say or scared of what you do, I think that’s central to why Hong Kong was successful.[and]Al Jazeera: Where do you see Hong Kong in five years?

Lai:

People in Hong Kong queue to buy the final edition of the Apple Daily
I think it depends on if the people running Hong Kong realise it’s true that these freedoms are one way to [File: Lam Yik/Reuters]

because in the end, the government has to be accountable for what they say, they will be judged on their actions. I hope, but I do not know if this will be the case. I think it depends on if the people running Hong Kong realise that these freedoms are one way to

because in the end, the government has to be accountable for what they say and will also judged by their actions. It’s possible that Hong Kong could become a world-class city once again if this is the case. It’s likely to become another mainland city and lose its competitive edge. It will no longer be able compete with other mainland cities.