HONG KONG – Hong Kong Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai to return to prison, days after his release on bail, the final step in the ongoing, flippant legal battle over one of the city’s most prominent anti-government figures.
Some people have the fate of mr. Lai, the most prominent person charged in Hong Kong’s new national security law, is seen as a barometer for the independence of the city’s judiciary. After being accused of conspiracy with ‘foreign powers’, inter alia by invoking sanctions against Hong Kong, Mr. Lai was denied bail earlier this month.
But he was released on appeal last week, albeit under extremely strict conditions, including house arrest and a ban on using social media or with reporters. The Hong Kong government immediately appealed to the court for final appeal, the highest court in the city.
The Chinese Communist Party’s official newspapers attacked the decision of the judge of the lower court to grant bail and Mr. Lai – the founder of the ardent pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily – was called infamous and extremely dangerous. The state-owned outlets even raised the possibility that a Chinese court on the continent could take over the case, as allowed under national law.
The Chinese government enacted the Security Act in June to suppress angry protests against the government in Hong Kong, a former British colony that was promised 50 years of civil liberties and relative autonomy when it was returned to China in 1997. The new law provides for life sentences for the vaguely defined crimes of undermining, segregation and collusion, and it gives the authorities wide enforcement powers.
The trial before the court for final appeal has been closely watched, in part because it was the first time a case has been served before the Supreme Court in Hong Kong under the Security Act.
It was also seen as a test of a question that is at the heart of the new law: whether it essentially prohibits bail for defendants of national security, as critics of Mr. Lai claims that it does. Some jurists are concerned that such a provision would violate the rights of defendants. The law stipulates that ‘no bail will be granted’ unless defendants no longer pose a threat to national security.
The court’s decision for final appeal on Thursday has been carefully adjusted and offers little ruling on such questions. The three-judge panel did not rule on how high the limits should be set to grant bail.
Instead, the judges agreed to consider the question only during a trial in February and to ask Mr. Lai until then to arrest. The panel said the government had raised ‘questions of great and general interest’ about the implications of the bail security law.
The three judges on the panel were among those chosen by Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam to hear national security cases, as ordered by security legislation. Because Beijing’s general managers are elected by a committee, the judges’ choice by Ms. Lamb brought concern about their impartiality.
But one of the judges on the panel, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma, ruled in favor of the judiciary.
The judge of the lower court who Mr. Lai granted bail, Judge Alex Lee, was also charged by Ms. Lamb selected. Judge Lee wrote in his decision that he was of the opinion that the strict bail conditions would prevent Mr. Let him repeat his alleged transgressions.
Judge Lee also said that public statements of Mr. Lai, who was told by prosecutors that proving he had conspired with foreign forces, appeared to be ‘comments and criticism’, and not requests for actual interference with Hong Kong’s affairs.
Mr. Lai is expected to stand trial in April.