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Activist publisher Jimmy Lai during an interview at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong on June 16, 2020,ANTHONY WALLACE/Getty Images

Hong Kong publisher and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai pleaded not guilty to a series of national-security charges Tuesday, as a trial expected to last much of this year finally got under way.

After the 76-year-old entered his plea, prosecutors began outlining their case against Mr. Lai, describing him as a “radical political figure” who conspired with foreign forces to stir up hatred of China and endanger national security.

They accused Mr. Lai of meeting with foreign politicians, including then-U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo, to lobby for sanctions against Hong Kong during anti-government unrest in 2019. Prosecutors claimed Mr. Lai also funded an international publicity drive urging other countries to impose sanctions, an accusation a now-exiled organizer of the campaign has denied.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a Britain-based lawyer leading Mr. Lai’s international legal team, has called the trial against him a “sham” and said they expect him to be convicted regardless of the evidence.

The closely watched hearing officially began last month, but was adjourned within days for judges to rule on whether prosecutors waited too long to charge Mr. Lai under a colonial-era sedition law.

Judges Esther Toh, Alex Lee and Susana D’Almada Remedios decided they had not, meaning Mr. Lai continues to face a count of sedition along with charges under Hong Kong’s national-security law, imposed on the city by Beijing after the 2019 protests.

The Chinese government has long painted Mr. Lai as a primary cause of that unrest, accusing him of conspiring with foreign forces to bring chaos to Hong Kong. While his now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper was a cheerleader of the pro-democracy movement for decades, the 2019 protests were largely spontaneous and leaderless, and notable for the lack of influence Mr. Lai and other members of the traditional opposition had over them.

Speaking last month, however, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Mr. Lai was “a major mastermind and participant of the anti-China riots in Hong Kong,” adding that “he is an agent and pawn of the anti-China forces, and the person behind the previous instability in Hong Kong.”

Western countries have called for Mr. Lai’s release, condemning his prosecution as an attack on dissent and freedom of the press.

In a recent statement, 24 members of the Media Freedom Coalition, including Canada, the United States and Britain, said the prosecution of Mr. Lai “creates a chilling effect on others in the press and media.”

“Freedom of the press has been central to Hong Kong’s success for many years,” the statement added. “Curtailing the space for free expression of alternative views weakens vital checks and balances on executive power. The free flow and exchange of opinions and information is vital to Hong Kong’s people, business and international reputation.”

In the latest ranking of global press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, Hong Kong fell to 140th out of 180, from a high of 18th two decades ago.

Since the introduction of the security law, hundreds of journalists have left Hong Kong, some to work for exile outlets covering the city from Britain and elsewhere, while others have quit the profession entirely. Civil-society groups have also shut down, and almost every prominent activist or opposition politician has fled or is facing prosecution under the security law.

In December, former student leader Agnes Chow revealed she had jumped bail in Canada. She managed to convince prosecutors to allow her to leave Hong Kong on the condition she complete a supervised visit to China to learn about the country’s accomplishments. Last week, another bailed protester, pro-independence campaigner Tony Chung, said he had fled for Britain, after he was approved to travel to Japan for a holiday.

Hong Kong officials have demanded both fugitives return to face prosecution, and promised to heighten the already tight surveillance of those out on bail. The local government is also pushing ahead with plans to introduce its own national-security legislation – known as Article 23 – to expand on that imposed by Beijing. This will cover offences such as sedition, currently outlawed by a statute dating back to 1914.

Speaking last month, Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang – who has boasted of a 100-per-cent conviction rate in national-security cases – said additional legislation was needed to deal with “soft resistance,” a broad term officials have applied to activities such as complaining about government policies online or a busker performing a protest anthem.

The overriding focus on national security, which has damaged Hong Kong’s reputation overseas as the city tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, has led even some pro-government lawmakers to express concern. Last year, legislator Paul Tse told the AFP news agency that criminalizing “soft resistance” could create a “very big grey area and huge censorship threat.”

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