Prosecutors on Thursday requested a Hong Kong court to hand over an ongoing fraud case involving Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai to a judge specially tasked with handling national security cases.
The request came despite the case having nothing to do with national security.
The case was heard on Thursday by District Court judge Stanley Chan. Lai and two senior managers of Apple Daily — director Royston Chow and administrative director Wong Wai-keung — were charged with conspiracy to defraud the government-funded Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, the landlord of the newspaper’s headquarters, over the land use of Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate.
Although Chan said that a designated judge only applied to crimes related to the national security law, with the trio were to be tried under the Theft Ordinance, prosecutor Ivan Cheung countered that it would be hard to proceed with the case if it wasn’t tasked to a national security judge.
The far-reaching national security law foisted by Beijing last June enables specialist judges appointed by the chief executive to hear cases, a practice not seen in other common law jurisdictions. Critics have expressed growing alarm at the apparent interference in Hong Kong’s judiciary, particularly since the imposition of the law.
The city’s Department of Justice defended the new practice, saying that having a normal judge preside over the case would have implications for any potential judicial review in the future.
Chan decided to adjourn the case until the end of this year to deal with the prosecution’s request, and tentatively scheduled the case to begin the trial in March next year, with an estimated trial period of 25 days.
The 73-year-old Lai was earlier sentenced to 14 months in jail after being convicted of hosting two illegal assemblies in August 2019, and is awaiting trial under the national security law.
Bail conditions for Wong, 59, and Chow, 63, were relaxed, with the pair now required to report to police every month and fortnight respectively, down from once a week. It is understood that Wong had recently undergone a major heart operation.
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