Vatican City, Sep 26, 2023 / 06:30 am (CNA).
Jimmy Lai, a Catholic pro-democracy activist and former publisher of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, spent his 1,000th day in jail on Tuesday awaiting his long-delayed trial.
Lai’s son has expressed fear that Lai could die in prison and human rights groups have urged the U.K. government to take immediate action to free the jailed newspaper publisher, who is a British citizen.
“I don’t want to see my father die in jail. He’s 75, he’s in prison, he does risk just dying. It is very worrying,” Sebastien Lai told the Associated Press.
Jimmy Lai has been jailed awaiting a trial since he was arrested in December 2020 under Hong Kong’s national security law. The Catholic covert could face life in prison if convicted. His trial is set for Dec. 18, nearly one year after it was originally scheduled.
Lai spends about 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in Hong Kong’s Stanley Prison, a maximum-security facility, according to AP, and is allowed outside to exercise for 50 minutes a day in a small enclosure surrounded by barbed wire.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, Amnesty International UK, and eight other human rights groups published an open letter on Sept. 24 calling on British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take immediate action to secure Lai’s release.
The letter underlined that the prime minister’s decisive action would be “a fundamental step to safeguard press freedom in Hong Kong.”
“Lai’s crime consists of owning and directing a news organization that was reporting on the concerns and struggles of a pro-democracy movement that has been virtually silenced by the state,” it said.
The jailed media mogul was the owner of the Apple Daily, which was Hong Kong’s most popular Chinese-language newspaper until it was closed in June 2021 after its offices were raided by hundreds of Hong Kong police and its executives detained. The paper was seen as Hong Kong’s most vocal pro-democracy newspaper.
Lai is one of more than 250 pro-democracy activists who have been arrested under the national security law since it was imposed by Beijing in response to Hong Kong’s massive pro-democracy protests in which nearly 2 million people took to the streets in 2019.
The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention raised “grave concern” over Lai’s detention in a communication sent to the Chinese government earlier this year.
Lai is facing several charges, including collusion with foreign forces, sedition, and conspiring to call for international sanctions against Hong Kong or China. He was also sentenced to five years and nine months in prison in December over fraud charges related to lease violations.
His trial has been repeatedly delayed since it was first scheduled for December 2022. Hong Kong’s High Court upheld a government decision to bar a British lawyer from defending Lai in his national security trial in May.
The court also rejected Lai’s request to halt the trial due to concerns that his case would be heard by three government-approved judges rather than a jury as practiced under Hong Kong’s common law tradition.
Sebastien Lai, Jimmy Lai’s son, has not seen his father in three years and worries for his health as his father suffers from diabetes and was diagnosed with high blood pressure in 2021 while in prison.
Lai was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize along with Cardinal Joseph Zen and other Hong Kong democracy advocates by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China in February.
He was also the recipient of the Christifidelis Laici award at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, the Freedom of Press Award by Reporters without Borders, and an honorary degree from Catholic University of America.
Lai was born in Guangzhou in mainland China in 1947 but came to Hong Kong at age 12 as a penniless stowaway. After working in a factory in Hong Kong, Lai saw a need for affordable, quality clothing for middle-class people and founded a chain of clothing stores called Giordano’s — a venture that would make him rich and allow him to launch pro-democracy magazines and newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
He was baptized and received into the Church by Cardinal Zen on July 7, 1997, at the age of 49. Before his conversion, the billionaire entrepreneur attended Mass with his wife, Teresa, whom Lai said had always been a devout Catholic. But in 1997, just before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, Lai said that he realized that he needed the protection and help of a higher power.
At a time when many pro-democracy activists fled Hong Kong out of fear of the National Security Law, Lai chose to stay. He urged Hong Kongers on social media: “Let us not be afraid and fight on!”
“The way I look at it, if I suffer for the right cause, it only defines the person I am becoming. It can only be good for me to become a better person. If you believe in the Lord, if you believe that all suffering has a reason, and the Lord is suffering with me … I’m at peace with it,” Lai said in an interview with the Napa Institute after his arrest in 2020.