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Politics

Hong Kong's Jimmy Lai denied bail over 'misconstrued' security law

Top court finds media mogul remains a threat while awaiting collusion trial

Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, arrives at the Court of Final Appeal by prison van in Hong Kong on Tuesday morning.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's top court has refused bail to outspoken media mogul Jimmy Lai -- the most high-profile person arrested under the national security law imposed on the city by Beijing last year -- as he awaits trial on a charge of colluding with foreign forces.

The Court of Final Appeal on Tuesday morning reversed a lower court's decision to grant bail to Lai, the founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, branding him an ongoing national security threat and saying the previous judge "misconstrued" a bail-related clause in the security law.

According to Article 42 of the law, "no bail shall be granted to a criminal suspect or defendant unless the judge has sufficient grounds for believing that the criminal suspect or defendant will not continue to commit acts endangering national security."

In the hearing, prosecutors argued that safeguarding national security should be given priority over conventional factors considered in most criminal cases, such as risks of absconding and reoffending. They contended that these risks would not be mitigated by imposing extra bail conditions.

The appeal was heard by Andrew Cheung, who last month succeeded outgoing Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma as the city's most senior judge. Justices Roberto Ribeiro, Joseph Fok, Patrick Chan and Frank Stock also presided over the hearing.

Although Hong Kong's common law-based legal system traditionally requires the prosecution to prove its case, defendants need to show they would not be a national security threat if released on bail under the security law.

Hearings on national security charges are in the spotlight as it remains to be seen how Hong Kong's independent judiciary will handle Beijing's draconian legislation. On Monday, Hong Kong's Department of Justice decided against using a jury for another national security case, citing personal safety concerns of jurors and their family members. The trial will be heard by three dedicated national security judges instead.

While Lai, 73, can file a fresh appeal against Tuesday's decision, he will be remanded in custody pending that application, according to the court's judgment. Lai's lawyer told local media after the ruling that his client is keen to launch another appeal.

The longtime China critic had been granted home release under a 10 million Hong Kong dollar ($1.3 million) bond in December with conditions restricting his personal, press and social media interactions. Meanwhile, Lai resigned as chairman and director of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily.

Soon after his release, Chinese state-run media lashed out at Hong Kong's judiciary, saying the decision was "unbelievable" and urged that Lai be transferred to mainland courts under the national security law as a "notorious and extremely dangerous" offender.

Prosecutors later appealed to the Court of Final Appeal to revoke his bail. Lai was taken into custody again on Dec. 31.

The businessman was arrested in August by national security police, who alleged that he was involved in an organization that called for foreign countries to interfere with Hong Kong affairs and sanction city officials. He also faces other protest-related charges.

The sweeping national security law carries criminal penalties for acts involving secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces. Under the law, suspects can be extradited to mainland China for trial. Convictions can lead to life imprisonment.

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