Saturday, 2 Dec 2023

Son of jailed Brit Jimmy Lai slams UK’s ‘shameful’ failure to stand up to China

The son of a British media tycoon jailed in Hong Kong says the Government’s failure to call for his release is “shameful”.

Billionaire and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai will mark his 1,000th day behind bars on Tuesday. He faces a life sentence under charges relating to a national security law that campaigners claim is being used to silence journalists and stamp out dissent.

The US, EU Parliament and the UN have all called publicly for Mr Lai, 75, to be released, his son Sebastien told reporters this week.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly raised the businessman’s case on a visit to Beijing last month. But the British government has not explicitly called for his release and Sebastien’s requests for a meeting with Mr Cleverly and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Sebastien, 28, said: “Even now, they’re not using language such as ‘call for his release’. I think – as a British citizen – it’s pretty shameful.”

He added: “I don’t know what the Foreign Secretary is thinking. If they are willing to sacrifice human rights, the freedoms that we have here, for trade, then I think it’s a big misstep.”

Daily Express editor Gary Jones was among more than 100 global media leaders who signed an open letter in May urging that the charges against Mr Lai and other Hong Kong journalists be dropped.

Mr Lai founded the Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily, which was one of the few mainstream publications that was critical of China.

He was arrested in 2020 following the introduction of a new national security law that has been used by authorities to crackdown on press freedom. The media mogul, who only holds a British passport, was found guilty of fraud last year in a contractual dispute.

He now faces further national security charges including “collusion with foreign forces”. He was due to stand trial on September 25 but the case is now expected to be delayed until at least mid-December.

Sebastien branded the legal action a “show trial” and said he has not seen his father in three years.

Photographs recently emerged of Mr Lai in prison, taken from a distance. Sebastien said: “Some part of me was happy because he’s still the same – dad’s still there. But the sad truth is that he is in prison.

“He looks young for 75…he’s standing firm, still resilient and hopeful, but you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow at that age.

“I don’t want to see my father die in jail so it’s incredibly important that we keep bringing attention to his case.”

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Sebastien and his legal team are travelling the globe seeking international support for Mr Lai’s release.

They have met with junior minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan three times and said there did appear to be “the will to help”.

However, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, who leads Sebastien’s international media team, said the Government was “speaking out of both sides of its mouth”.

She warned that, in some similar cases, the Foreign Office had only spoken out after imprisoned Britons had been convicted, and urged ministers to speak “in a more robust way now, when it can make a difference”.

Ms Gallagher added: “We feel that the only way that the current grim trajectory is going to change is international pressure on Hong Kong and China.

“Sebastien and his father are facing a powerful enemy in the Chinese state, and it feels at the moment as if we’re facing a war on two fronts.

“Not only are you having to battle with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities, you’re also having to have a fight with your own government to try to get them to be more robust.”

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Fiona O’Brien, UK bureau director at Reporters Without Borders, said Mr Lai’s case was set against the backdrop of a “total collapse of independent journalism in Hong Kong”.

A team from her organisation recently managed to enter the country and meet with journalists for the first time since the pandemic. They described feeling surveilled and unable to write freely.

The UK has a “moral responsibility” to speak out up in support of Mr Lai, Ms O’Brien said. She added: “We should be the loudest, and actually we’re the weakest.

“Why is it not possible for the Prime Minister, for the Foreign Minister, to say very clearly in Parliament: ‘This is an outrage. Our citizen shouldn’t be in prison.’?”

A spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “As the Foreign Secretary made clear this week in his latest report to Parliament on Hong Kong, British national Jimmy Lai’s prosecution has been highly politicised. Mr Lai and others are being deliberately targeted to silence criticism under the guise of national security.

“The Foreign Secretary raised Mr Lai’s case with his counterpart as a matter of priority in Beijing last month, and the Minister for the Indo-Pacific met Sebastien Lai last week to continue discussion of his father’s case.”

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