Hong Kong court rejects challenge by jailed media tycoon Lai over British lawyer

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong court on Friday dismissed an attempt by jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai to challenge a decision by security officials to effectively bar his British lawyer from representing him in a landmark national security trial.

Lai's legal team filed a judicial review after Hong Kong's National Security Committee (NSC), headed by senior Hong Kong and Chinese officials, ruled that the admission of senior British barrister Timothy Owen could harm national security and advised Hong Kong authorities to reject his visa.

The use of foreign lawyers by both prosecutors and defence has long been allowed in the former British colony as part of its rule of law traditions.

The rejection of Lai's legal challenge comes after the Hong Kong legislature, on May 10, passed a bill giving the city's leader the discretionary power to bar foreign lawyers from national security cases, after a similar ruling by China's top legislative body in December.

Chief High Court judge Jeremy Poon, in dismissing Lai's challenge, said Hong Kong courts essentially had no authority over the National Security Committee.

Under Hong Kong's national security law, imposed by China in 2020, Poon wrote in a judgement, the law "has not vested the ... courts with any jurisdiction over the work of the NSC".

"The duties and functions of the NSC ... are matters well beyond the ... courts' institutional capacity," Poon said.

A lawyer for Lai, Robert Pang, had earlier argued that if the court could not step in when the NSC overstepped its power, Hong Kong was "saying goodbye to a huge chunk of our rule of law".

"You cannot have a body which can simply say magic words (on) national security, and be able to be free from any challenge," Pang said.

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 after months of anti-government protests. The law punishes acts including subversion and collusion with foreign forces.

The 75-year-old Lai founded the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper that was raided by police and shut down in 2021.

He was jailed for five years and nine months last December on a fraud charge and now faces four charges under the security law and a colonial-era sedition law that could see him jailed for life.

Lai has pledged to plead not guilty. His trial is scheduled to begin in September.

More than 100 global media leaders signed a statement calling for Lai's release this month. They included Nobel Prize laureates Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa, as well as the editors of the New York Times, Washington Post and the Guardian.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang; Editing by James Pomfret, Robert Birsel)