European Parliament calls for the release of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, repeal of Hong Kong’s NSL
Today, Thursday 15 June 2023, the European Parliament has passed An Urgent Resolution urging “the Hong Kong Government to immediately and unconditionally release and drop all charges against Jimmy Lai and all other pro-democracy representatives and activists who have exercised their freedom of expression and basic human rights.”
The Resolution is entitled ‘Resolution on the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, notably the case of Jimmy Lai,’ and it raises multiple issues of serious concern about the situation in Hong Kong and the targeting of pro-democracy campaigners, journalists and human rights defenders. The Resolution states:
“[P]olitical prisoners generally remain imprisoned throughout a lengthy pre-trial detention period in very difficult conditions, while many of them have serious health conditions … this has been the case for prominent representatives of the pro-democracy camp such as Jimmy Lai.”
The Resolution was passed with a large majority, of 483 votes in favour.
Today’s vote followed a debate at the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg last night, on 14 June 2023. In the debate EU lawmakers called on the Hong Kong authorities to release Jimmy Lai, the 75-year-old British pro-democracy campaigner, media owner and journalist who has been held since 2020 and faces further charges this year which could see him spend the rest of his life in prison.
Promoting the resolution, Miriam Lexmann MEP (Slovakia, EPP) told fellow Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that Jimmy Lai faces life in prison based on trumped up charges under the “so-called National Security Law” (“NSL”), and she urged the EU to review Hong Kong’s international status since the loss of its autonomy to the People’s Republic of China.
Georgios Kyrtsos MEP (Greece, Renew) used his remarks to remind the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese Communist Party that the European Parliament will make the case of Jimmy Lai a basic criterion of co-operation in its bilateral relations. He too demanded Jimmy Lai’s immediate release, and for all charges against him to be dropped.
Mr Jimmy Lai is a 75-year-old British citizen based in Hong Kong. He is the founder of Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s most popular newspapers until its forced closure in June 2021. He is a well-known and high-profile supporter of the Hong Kong democracy movement, an advocate for peaceful assembly, and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.
For that Mr Lai has been repeatedly targeted by the Hong Kong authorities. Since 2020 he has faced a constant barrage of criminal prosecutions, including for his participation in peaceful protests and under the NSL in relation to various Apple Daily publications and his campaigning work supporting democratic values and human rights. He was first arrested in February 2020 and since December 2020 has been detained in a maximum-security prison, where he remains today.
Mr Lai has been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in four separate cases for his peaceful participation in various pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, and he is currently serving a sentence of 5 years and 9 months following his conviction in October 2022 for an alleged breach of a commercial lease agreement. He is due to stand trial in September 2023 charged with collusion with foreign agents under the NSL as well as with sedition, with the charges alleging that he committed such offences through his peaceful pro-democracy activities and his journalism.
Mr Lai’s media company, Next Digital Limited, has now permanently ceased trading and been de-listed due of the oppressive treatment of Mr Lai and his colleagues, wiping out the largest independent Chinese-language outlet in the region (Apple Daily) and sweeping away the many jobs and other media enterprises under its umbrella.
The barrage of cases against Mr Lai has been widely condemned as an attempt to penalise him for his pro-democracy campaigning and his media outlet’s reporting critical of the PRC, and as a way to silence him. The European Union’s External Action Service and European Parliament, the US Government, and the US Senate have all expressed alarm over Hong Kong’s crackdown on Mr Lai and other pro-democracy campaigners, and yet their persecution continues unabated.
In May 2023 United Nations experts expressed “grave concern” regarding the treatment of Mr Lai and the shuttering of Apple Daily. In a formal communication sent by the UN experts to the PRC, the experts urged the PRC to take all necessary interim measures “to halt the alleged violations [of Jimmy Lai’s rights] and prevent their re-occurrence” and to hold to account “any person or persons responsible for violating Jimmy Lai’s fundamental rights and freedoms.
The case of Mr Lai and Apple Daily is emblematic of the rapid collapse of the rule of law in Hong Kong since the introduction of the NSL only three years ago. In that short period Hong Kong has slid at breakneck speed from being a beacon of a dependable rules-based order with a well-functioning and independent judiciary to a state where fundamental freedoms such as the freedom to peacefully protest and campaign for democracy are totally absent, and where it is unsafe to conduct journalism and impossible to own an independent media outlet.
Mr Lai is not alone. Scores of fellow pro-democracy activists have been sentenced to draconian sentences for exercising their right to peaceful protest. Dozens of Mr Lai’s colleagues at Apple Daily and other outlets are facing similar charges to him under the NSL in trials which have stretched the Hong Kong legal sector to its limit.
In response to the passing of the resolution Mr Lai’s son, Sebastien Lai, said:
“The European Parliament’s resolution sends a powerful message to Hong Kong that the targeting and imprisonment of my father and other prominent pro-democracy figures, in an attempt to silence them, is not going unnoticed by the international community. My father is languishing in a Hong Kong prison because of his work and his activism. I am grateful to the European Parliament for their strong stance and important recognition of the alarming deterioration of the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, and for their call for my father’s release. Today, they have shone a light in the dark corners which Hong Kong wishes to keep hidden.”
Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, who leads the international legal team for Jimmy Lai and Sebastien Lai, added:
“Jimmy Lai has already spent two and a half years behind bars for speaking truth to power: for his work as a leading figure in the pro-democracy movement, for his journalism and his writing. He now faces the prospect of life behind bars, and we now face the terrible prospect of a UK national dying in prison for standing up for democratic values and exercising his internationally protected rights. It is heartening to see the European Parliament now speak out for Jimmy Lai. The European Parliament has called for his immediate and unconditional release. Now, Hong Kong must act – before it is too late.”
In international law matters, Mr Lai and his son, Sebastien Lai, are represented by an international legal team led by Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, which includes Jonathan Price, Tatyana Eatwell, Jennifer Robinson and Clare Wisson, barristers at Doughty Street Chambers, London.
Notes to editors:
Today’s Resolution was passed with a majority of 483 votes in favour, 9 votes against and 42 abstentions.
Today’s new Resolution is consistent with and builds upon the European Parliament’s previous resolutions on Hong Kong, in particular those of 8th July 2021 on Hong Kong, notably the case of Apple Daily; 21st January 2021 on the crackdown on the democratic opposition in Hong Kong; 19th June 2020 on the PRC national security law for Hong Kong and the need for the EU to defend Kong Kong’s high degree of autonomy; and 18th July 2019 on the situation in Hong Kong.