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Sebastien Lai, son of Jimmy Lai, will be in Ottawa on Tuesday, where he hopes to meet with Canadian government officials and urge them to publicly call for his father’s release.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

This story has been updated to include a comment from Global Affairs Canada.

Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai will spend his 76th birthday on Friday behind bars, awaiting trial this month in a high-profile case seen as part of Beijing’s crackdown on the territory’s pro-democracy protests.

The founder of the now-defunct newspaper Apple Daily faces up to life in prison if convicted under a Hong Kong national-security law imposed by China that has been widely condemned by Canada and other countries for criminalizing dissent.

His son, Sebastien Lai, will be in Ottawa on Tuesday, where he hopes to meet with Canadian government officials and urge them to publicly call for his father’s release.

“It is very scary thinking I may never see him again and that he might die in prison,” Sebastien Lai said on Monday at a special screening of a documentary about his father hosted by The Globe and Mail in Toronto.

The film, titled The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai’s Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom, shows him in shackles as he was escorted through his own newsroom after supporting a youth-led movement for democracy in Hong Kong that at its peak saw millions of people take to the streets in protest in 2019.

Jimmy Lai, a British citizen, was arrested and charged in December, 2020, under the Beijing-imposed national-security law, which criminalizes subversion, secession and collusion with foreign powers. He was accused of conspiring with others to call for sanctions or blockades, or engage in hostile activities, against Hong Kong or China.

Apple Daily was Hong Kong’s most popular newspaper before the pro-democracy tabloid was shut down and top executives arrested. As publisher of the newspaper, Jimmy Lai has long been a figure loathing for Beijing and its supporters in Hong Kong. He has often been painted in state media as collaborating with foreign powers to mastermind the protests.

Apple Daily published its final edition in June, 2021, with people lining up in the middle of the night to get a copy. In December, 2021, Jimmy Lai and his newsroom staff were awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom by the World Association of News Publishers.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow says she will remain in Canada

Sebastien Lai and Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a London barrister who specializes in human rights and civil liberties cases, are leading the campaign to free him. Ms. Gallagher said Hong Kong’s security chief has boasted that the conviction rate under the national-security law is 100 per cent. Jimmy Lai’s trial is set to begin on Dec. 18. He is set to plead not guilty.

“We are heading into a sham trial,” Ms. Gallagher said. “It’s designed to say, ‘keep silent or you will be next.’ ”

The message she wants to get across to officials in Ottawa is that the restrictions in Hong Kong – despite China’s promise to protect the territory’s civil liberties for 50 years after the 1997 handover from Britain – mean it is no longer a safe place to do business.

Before Jimmy Lai even goes to trial, his newspaper was forced to shut down. That could happen to any business, including the 100 Canadian companies that operate in Hong Kong, Ms. Gallagher said.

“There is this mismatch between a recognition of those issues … and the continuing golden blindfolds approach with Canadian engagement on the trade side,” she told The Globe’s editorial board.

Canada continues to monitor all trials related to charges under the National Security Law, including Mr. Lai’s, said Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Charlotte MacLeod.

“Canada strongly believes that media freedom remains an important part of democratic societies and essential to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Sebastien Lai said his father could have “taken the easy way out” by fleeing the territory. Instead, he said his father chose to stay and defend Hong Kong’s long-standing liberties.

He left Hong Kong days before his father was arrested and has not seen him since. He would face arrest if he were to return to the city: the very act of speaking out about his father’s plight violates the national-security law.

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