Security tight ahead of landmark trial for leading Hong Kong democrat

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Written By Pinang Driod

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, arrives the Court of Final Appeal, for hearing an appeal by the Department of Justice against the bail decision of Lai, in Hong Kong, China December 31, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A landmark national security trial for leading China critic Jimmy Lai will open in Hong Kong on Monday amid tight security, with the pro-democracy activist battling charges that he colluded with foreign forces, including the United States.

Queues formed outside the West Kowloon Law Court building on the night before the closely anticipated trial, with scores of police deployed. Hong Kong’s security chief warned last week any attempts to disrupt proceedings would not be tolerated.

Lai, the founder of now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple (NASDAQ:) Daily and one of the most prominent Hong Kong critics of China’s Communist Party leadership, has faced a salvo of litigation since a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2019.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The 76-year-old was brought to the court building in a navy blue prison van in a police convoy. A security cordon was set up around the court building perimeter, with uniformed, riot and plainclothes police, armoured vehicles and sniffer dogs on site.

Some supporters of Lai, who faces possible life imprisonment, lined up overnight in the winter chill to secure a spot in the courtroom.

“Lai has been detained in prison for almost three years now. I want to witness this,” said Jolly Chung, a 29-year-old.

“If he can’t come out and has to die in prison, I hope he can be proud of himself, and many Hong Kongers want to say thank you to him.”

Western democracies including the United States, Britain and the European Union are watching closely, with the trial looming as a fresh diplomatic flashpoint and a key test for Hong Kong’s judicial independence and freedoms under the sweeping national security law imposed by China in 2020.

Britain on Sunday toughened its stance towards the plight of Lai – a British citizen – by explicitly calling on authorities to release him.

Lai, who China’s foreign ministry recently called a “notorious anti-China element” has been behind bars now for over 1000 days. He faces several charges under the law, including collusion with foreign forces – a count that involves calling for sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials.

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