Sebastien Lai, the son of jailed Hong Kong newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai, met with Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly Tuesday to ask for Canada’s help in freeing the pro-democracy media tycoon.
The younger Mr. Lai asked Ms. Joly to press for his father’s release publicly. He said afterward that he left the meeting in Ottawa feeling hopeful.
Ms. Joly’s office had no comment after the meeting. British lawyer Jonathan Price, who was in attendance to support Mr. Lai, said the request for Canada to speak out is “certainly something that is being considered.”
Jimmy Lai, a British citizen and publisher of Hong Kong’s now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, was arrested and charged in December, 2020, under a national-security law imposed by Beijing. Apple Daily shuttered permanently six months later, and other top executives were also arrested.
Ostensibly intended to target secession, subversion and terrorism, the national-security law contains vaguely defined offences that critics say effectively criminalize dissent and opposition. The elder Mr. Lai, who turns 76 on Friday, was accused of conspiring with others to call for sanctions or blockades against Hong Kong or China, or engage in hostile activities.
He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted. His trial is scheduled to begin on Dec. 18. He plans to plead not guilty.
The U.S. government has repeatedly called for Jimmy Lai’s immediate and unconditional release. The European Parliament has urged Hong Kong authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release and drop all charges” against him. Clément Voule, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, has expressed solidarity with Sebastien Lai and called for China to release his father and all those “detained currently for their fight for democracy and the rule of law” in Hong Kong.
The British government has not called for Jimmy Lai’s release, but individual British MPs have.
There is no record of Canada’s Department of Global Affairs publicly pressing for his release.
The department appears not to have named him in any statements. Asked when Global Affairs had last publicly advocated on the publisher’s behalf, department spokesperson Marilyne Guèvremont pointed to three instances in which had it lamented the shutdown of Apple Daily. In one statement, in 2021, Global Affairs registered “strong concern about the forced closure of Apple Daily newspaper and the arrest of its staff by the Hong Kong authorities.”
Sebastien Lai met Tuesday with several other parliamentarians in Ottawa, including Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre; International Trade Minister Mary Ng; Liberal MPs Sameer Zuberi, Anthony Housefather and Ali Ehsassi; Conservative MP Shuvaloy Majumdar; NDP MP Jenny Kwan; and Bloc Québécois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe.
Mr. Lai, who is heading to Brussels next for meetings with European lawmakers, thanked the Canadian politicians for listening. “I’m incredibly grateful that the Canadian government is taking the freedom of the press, democracy, and my father’s fight for those values, so seriously,” he said in a statement. “Having been in Canada for a few days now, I feel more hopeful.”
Hong Kong activist groups say Canada has not done enough for Jimmy Lai.
Ivy Li, with Canadian Friends of Hong Kong, noted that 300,000 Hong Kong residents hold Canadian citizenship.
“Even though Jimmy Lai is not a Canadian, he has close family ties and business in Canada. What has happened to Jimmy Lai can happen to any Canadian residing, working, studying or doing business there,” she said.
Ms. Li said Ottawa’s relative silence on Jimmy Lai “sends the wrong signal to” China.
Aileen Calverley, with Hong Kong Watch, a Britain-based human rights group, agreed. “The Canadian government’s response to the detention of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, including Jimmy Lai, has been inadequate,” she said. “As a prominent figure in the pro-democracy movement, Lai’s detention sends a chilling message to all those who dare to speak out against the erosion of democratic values in Hong Kong. It is crucial for the Canadian government to take a stronger stance and actively advocate for his release.”
Apple Daily, a pro-democracy tabloid, was Hong Kong’s most popular newspaper before it was shut down as part of a Chinese Communist Party crackdown on the former British colony, which began in 2020. As publisher of the newspaper, Jimmy Lai had long been a figure of loathing among Chinese officials and their supporters in Hong Kong. He and Apple Daily were consistent critics of the Hong Kong administration and the authorities in Beijing.
Jimmy Lai is only one of many pro-democracy figures facing the prospect of lengthy prison sentences. Forty-seven politicians, activists and academics have been charged with conspiracy to commit subversion. The crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong has steadily eroded the territory’s political and social freedoms, which were unique in China – a legacy of Hong Kong’s years under British control. China had signed a treaty promising that Hong Kong could retain autonomy over its local affairs, as well as civil rights, for 50 years after the territory’s 1997 handover from Britain. But Western countries have said China has broken that pact.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a London barrister who is working with Sebastien Lai to lead the campaign to free his father, said Hong Kong’s security chief has boasted that the conviction rate under the national-security law is 100 per cent.
“We are heading into a sham trial,” Ms. Gallagher said. “It’s designed to say, ‘keep silent or you will be next.’”