Congressional commission urges sanctions if Hong Kong won’t release Jimmy Lai

Jimmy Lai FXM interview Hong Kong media tycoon and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai. | Napa Institute.

A congressional commission is urging the United States government to sanction Hong Kong prosecutors and judges if they fail to release Catholic pro-democracy activist and journalist Jimmy Lai, who is on trial for allegedly violating a controversial Chinese national security law.

The 76-year-old activist, a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party and an advocate for democracy and greater freedom in Hong Kong, has garnered support from American and European officials since his arrest on Aug. 10, 2020. 

Lai has been imprisoned for three years in a maximum security prison, charged with a variety of crimes, including collusion with foreign forces under the 2020 national security law. Chinese officials claimed that the law bolstered national security protections, but critics argue that it gives officials broad authority to label political opponents as national security threats. 

Lai’s trial began this week and he could face life in prison if convicted.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, who serve as the chair and co-chair of the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC), called on the Biden administration to “sanction the judges and prosecutors involved in this case and other National Security Law-related cases” if officials refuse to release Lai and others imprisoned for political speech.

“His trial … is a political prosecution plain and simple and another sad example of the Hong Kong government’s increasingly repressive policies,” the Dec. 17 statement read. “Over the past four years, only authoritarian regimes like Burma and Belarus detained political prisoners at a rate higher than Hong Kong. Charges against Jimmy Lai should be dropped and he should be released with over 1,000 other political prisoners.”

The Department of State issued a statement on Sunday that called on Hong Kong authorities to “immediately release Jimmy Lai and all others imprisoned for defending their rights” but stopped short of threatening sanctions. 

“We urge Beijing and Hong Kong authorities to respect press freedom in Hong Kong,” said Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the department. “Actions that stifle press freedom and restrict the free flow of information — as well as Beijing and local authorities’ changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system that reduce direct voting and preclude independent and pro-democracy party candidates from participating — have undermined Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and harmed Hong Kong’s reputation as an international business and financial hub.”

The trial has received significant attention from leaders internationally, with other Western nations signaling their support for Lai. A spokesperson for the European Union’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said the charges were brought because of Lai’s “support for free expression and democracy in Hong Kong.” 

“The European Union deplores the charges brought against him and [other] journalists … and is monitoring the trial closely,” the Dec. 18 statement read. “The trial brought against him undermines confidence in the rule of law in Hong Kong and is detrimental to the city’s attractiveness and its position as an international business hub.”

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron issued a similar statement on Dec. 18, saying that the national security law “has damaged Hong Kong, with rights and freedoms significantly eroded” and that “arrests under the law have silenced opposition voices.” 

“I am gravely concerned that anyone is facing prosecution under the National Security Law, and particularly concerned at the politically motivated prosecution of British national Jimmy Lai,” Cameron said. “As a prominent and outspoken journalist and publisher, Jimmy Lai has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association.” 

Several prominent Catholic bishops have also shown their support for Lai, signing a petition back in November that called for his release from prison. Three American bishops signed the petition: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA; and Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.

Lai founded the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily in 1995, which shut down in mid-2021 after officials froze the company’s assets. In 2020, Lai cited his Catholic faith as one of the reasons he remained in Hong Kong despite the persecution. 

“If I go away, I not only give up my destiny, I give up God, I give up my religion, I give up what I believe in,” Lai said.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.