Aide of Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai set up US senator meeting with protesters in 2019, court hears

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Aide of Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai set up US senator meeting with protesters in 2019, court hears

Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai’s aide arranged for Hong Kong activists to meet US senator Rick Scott when the politician visited the city during the 2019 protests and unrest, a key prosecution witness has told Lai’s national security trial.

Police officers outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on December 18, 2023 as media mogul Jimmy Lai’s trial began. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Andy Li, one of 12 Hongkongers caught by Chinese coastguard in August 2020, told the court on Wednesday that he spoke with Scott in September 2019 after Mark Simon, Lai’s US-based assistant, invited him and another “frontline” protester to a meeting in Mid-Levels.

The witness, who is testifying against Lai, said he was invited because he had been part of an “international front” to raise awareness for the “deteriorating freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.”

He added that “Stand with Hong Kong” (SWHK), an activist group he was a member of, was also hoping to engage in international lobbying at that time.

US senator Rick Scott. Photo: Rick Scott via US Senate.
US senator Rick Scott. Photo: Rick Scott via US Senate.

But he said SWHK had no clear agenda when it came to such lobbying, and that the group mainly hoped to draw international attention.

When asked about the purpose of the meeting by lead prosecutor Anthony Chau, Li said in Cantonese: “[The meeting] was to express our wishes that the US do something to address the situation in Hong Kong… I am not dodging your question, but at the meeting, me and [the frontline protester] were not able to say what we really wanted the US to do.”

“[The frontline protester] described the protest scenes, and I briefly talked about the crowdfunding campaigns by Hongkongers,” Li added, referring to three fundraising efforts between June and August that year to place advertisements in international media outlets to garner support for the protests.

Li said he was not aware of Simon’s connection with Lai before or during the meeting, and that he only learned Simon was Lai’s “right-hand man” from later reading the newspaper.

Li on Wednesday – the 49th day of the trial – continued to elaborate on his role in the SWHK campaign, which prosecutors alleged was ultimately instructed and financed by Lai in a bid to attract foreign sanctions and hostile acts on Hong Kong and China.

Lai, 76, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of conspiring to collude with foreign forces under the Beijing-imposed national security law, as well as one count of conspiring to publish seditious materials under colonial-era legislation.

andy li
Hong Kong activist Andy Li. Photo: Screenshot, via Radio Free Asia.

Li said the group had no formal membership nor an organisational charter, and that not every member supported calling for sanctions against the city.

“It could be said that SWHK’s consensus was to fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong at that time, and [urging] sanctions was one of the means,” he added.

But he also confirmed that some of the political ads the group placed with international media contained a request for sanctions to be imposed on the city.

The court previously heard that the group had called on the US and Canada to impose sanctions on Hong Kong in ads placed in The New York Times and The Globe and Mail.

See also: Hong Kong activists urged US, Canada to impose sanctions and restrict arms sales amid 2019 protests, Jimmy Lai trial hears

Li said that, after the third crowdfunding campaign in August 2019, the group had disagreed on whether they should continue to publish political ads globally.

He said he was opposed to the idea and quit the group, only re-joining after he learned that other members had agreed to stop the advertising campaign. Members who were of the opposite view left and went on to run another advertising campaign that October, Li added.

People wearing badges of Australia, UK and Canada outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on December 18, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
People wearing badges of Australia, UK and Canada outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on December 18, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Chau drew the court’s attention to a list of “achievements” outlined on SWHK’s webpage, which included a visit made by UK politician Bob Seely to the city in August 2019.

Li said he was involved in receiving Seely at the request of UK-based activist Finn Lau, also known as “mutual destruction bro,” Lau’s username on the LIHKG forum.

The witness said he discussed the protests in Hong Kong and people’s discontent at the time with Seely, while another activist took the politician to observe the protests on the street.

Separately, Li said he made a trip to Geneva in the same month to meet with Sebastien Gillioz, whom Li said was an employee of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Mark Simon, media mogul Jimmy Lai's aide. Photo: Mark Simon, via X.
Mark Simon, media mogul Jimmy Lai’s aide. Photo: Mark Simon, via X.

Li said he met with Gillioz to discuss the prospect of “human rights lobbying” after the OHCHR issued a statement concerning the situation in Hong Kong, and that Gillioz told him some UN officers were “unhappy” with the China delegation’s narrative of “development-based human rights.”

Judge Esther Toh, one of the three handpicked security law judges presiding over the case, stopped Li twice from recounting the meeting, saying “we are not trying the lobbying of the OHCHR.”

Li, who was charged alongside Lai over conspiring to collude with foreign forces under the national security law, pleaded guilty to the charge in August 2021.

After he and 11 other Hongkongers were intercepted, Li served seven months in a mainland Chinese prison where he was allegedly tortured before being transferred to Hong Kong.

An international legal team representing Lai in January took their case to the UN Human Rights Council, saying there were “grave concerns… as to whether [Li’s] testimony was procured through torture and coercion.”

When Lai’s trial began on December 18, 2023, he had already spent more than 1,000 days in custody after having had his bail revoked in December 2020. Three judges – handpicked by Hong Kong’s chief executive to hear national security cases – are presiding over Lai’s trial in the place of a jury, marking a departure from the city’s common law traditions.

The trial continues on Thursday.

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