The desperation with which the Hong Kong authorities and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party are trying to stifle criticism has reached new levels this week, with fresh developments in the trial of publisher Jimmy Lai.
The 76-year-old Hong Kong-British businessman and publisher has been detained since December 2020. His assets were frozen in May 2021 and his publication Apple Daily was forced to close in June the same year. He has been in prison ever since.
On 18 December 2023, Lai’s long-delayed trial on charges of sedition and collusion with foreign forces began. Lai pleaded not guilty.
Earlier this week, the prosecution presented a list of people they termed as Lai’s co-conspirators.
Among Lai’s alleged co-conspirators are Bill Browder, founder of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign and Benedict Rogers, founder of Hong Kong Watch, along with James Cunningham, former US consul general in Hong Kong and chairman of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation and Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).
Browder and Rogers have dismissed the allegations against them.
Browder told Index this week, “I have never met or spoken to Jimmy Lai and for them to accuse me of being a co-conspirator with him or him with me is a total fabrication. It is just an indication of how illegitimate and trumped up the changes are against Jimmy Lai.”
Browder said that the charges are an indication of how China is “trying to take its authoritarian oppression international by going after people like me who have not set foot in China for 35 years”.
Benedict Rogers told Index that Lai is being punished for “daring to publish stories and opinions which Beijing dislikes; the crime of conspiracy to talk about politics to politicians; and conspiracy to raise human rights concerns with human rights organisations”.
He said, “Jimmy Lai is, as the head of his international legal team Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC puts it so brilliantly, charged with the crime of conspiracy to commit journalism.”
Rogers said his supposed conspiracy with Lai is nothing more than journalism.
“Citing a message from Mr Lai to me, requesting me to ask whether the last governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten would provide a comment to journalists from his newspaper, as evidence of a crime signals that the normal, legitimate, day-to-day work of journalists in Hong Kong is no longer possible. Journalism is not a crime, but in Hong Kong it now is,” he said.
Despite the flimsy nature of the charges against the alleged co-conspirators, Browder said his naming along with others in the court case is “a very real threat”.
“The Hong Kong authorities have come up with the national security law and are saying that Jimmy Lai has conspired with others to violate that law and there are criminal punishments. I can imagine a scenario in which the authorities decide to issue Interpol Red Notices against me, Benedict Rogers, Luke de Pulford and others and request assistance. This is what dictators and authoritarian governments do,” he said.
Browder is no stranger to being singled out by authoritarian regimes abusing the Interpol system.
Browder, through his Hermitage Capital Management fund, was once the largest foreign investor in Russia. In 2005, Browder was denied entry to the country and labelled as a threat to national security for exposing corruption in Russia.
Three years later, Browder’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky uncovered a $230 million fraud involving government officials and was arrested, thrown in jail without trial and kept in horrendous conditions. A year later, Magnitsky died.
Browder has since led the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign which seeks to impose targeted visa bans and asset freezes on human rights abusers and highly corrupt officials.
In the time since, Russia has called on Interpol eight times to issue red notices against Browder.
“Interpol has for a long time been the long arm of dictators to pursue their critics and opposition politicians. I have been a poster child of that in relation to Russia. We know that China and other countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, regularly abuse Interpol and Interpol doesn’t seem to have the controls and mechanisms in place for weeding out these illegitimate red notices,” he said.
As a result of Russia’s use of Interpol’s red notices, Browder said that it has closed off 95% of the world for him and that little will change if Hong Kong goes down the same route.
“It won’t change anything for me but will change things for all other people who have been named,” he said.
Browder said the case against Lai is abusive and he should be released immediately, adding: “This needs a robust response from the British Government. You can’t have a bunch of British citizens being threatened for nothing other than expressing their political opinions.”
Before Christmas, the recently appointed foreign secretary and former prime minister David Cameron called on Hong Kong to release Lai. Cameron said in a statement, “Hong Kong’s national security law is a clear breach of the Sino-British joint declaration. Its continued existence and use is a demonstration of China breaking its international commitments.”
Asked whether the new foreign secretary, who has a record of striving for a closer relationship with China from his previous time in office, would be the person to provide that robust response, Browder said: “I think we are living in a different world vis a vis China and I am confident he will do the right thing here.”