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Armed police stand guard as a prison van carrying Andy Li arrives at the high court, in Hong Kong, China, on Aug. 19, 2021.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

A computer programmer who was allegedly abused while in Chinese custody took the stand Wednesday in Hong Kong in a high-profile national security case against former Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai.

Andy Li helped organize a crowdfunding campaign – Stand With Hong Kong – to place ads in newspapers around the world in 2019 during anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The campaign called for foreign governments to support the pro-democracy movement and sanction Hong Kong and Chinese officials responsible for cracking down on it.

In 2020, amid mass arrests under a new national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing, Mr. Li was one of 12 activists who attempted to flee by boat to Taiwan. They were detained by the Chinese coast guard, and Mr. Li was imprisoned in Guangdong for seven months for illegally crossing the border.

As Jimmy Lai trial continues, owning copies of Apple Daily newspaper could become illegal under new Hong Kong law

During that time, The Washington Post has reported, Mr. Li was repeatedly abused and threatened. Witnesses told the newspaper they heard screaming coming from his cell.

In 2021, after his return to Hong Kong, Mr. Li pleaded guilty in a separate national security case when prosecutors agreed to drop additional charges against him related to his escape. He was represented by lawyers with ties to the Hong Kong government and pro-Beijing organizations, something researchers at the Georgetown Centre for Asian Law said was reminiscent of Chinese authorities “manipulating, or even dictating, legal representation for defendants in politically sensitive cases.”

“Such lawyers will generally not make allegations regarding torture or ill treatment,” the centre said in a report.

Mr. Li is still awaiting sentencing and is reportedly being held in a psychiatric facility. Owing to the alleged abuse he suffered and the apparent deal made with prosecutors, Mr. Lai’s supporters have raised questions about the reliability of any of Mr. Li’s testimony, which the government is expected to use to tie Mr. Lai into an alleged international conspiracy against Hong Kong.

Mr. Lai’s lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher said, “the admission of evidence procured through torture and coercion will constitute a flagrant denial of Jimmy Lai’s right to a fair trial.”

Appearing in court Wednesday, Mr. Li was escorted by green-uniformed corrections officers, who sat behind him while he testified through an interpreter. Thin and bespectacled, Mr. Li wore a large, dark blue puffer jacket over a white shirt, his hair in a messy bowl cut. He gave testimony clearly and loudly in Cantonese, occasionally interrupting the interpreter to correct her choice of English words.

Mr. Lai’s lawyers did not object to Mr. Li’s presence, and no reference was made to his alleged mistreatment.

Mr. Lai could be seen making notes, which he shared with his lawyers during a recess.

Much of what Mr. Li testified about Wednesday was not new. He described how, at the height of the 2019 unrest, he got involved in the crowdfunding campaign, which eventually raised about $1.2-million to place ads in newspapers around the world, including The Globe and Mail.

There were delays in transferring the funds from the crowdfunding platform, however, and Mr. Li was struggling to make payments in time for the ads to run ahead of the June, 2019, G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan. Paralegal Chan Tsz-wah, whom he knew through a protest group on Telegram, approached him and offered to help, Mr. Li said.

Prosecutors say Mr. Chan was a “middleman” between Mr. Li and several companies controlled by Mr. Lai, including Ontario-based Lais Hotel Properties Ltd., which made payments on Mr. Li’s behalf.

“Of course, it was only an advance, subsequently I needed to pay him,” Mr. Li said.

Representatives for the hotel chain did not respond to a request for comment.

Entered into evidence Wednesday were copies of wire transfers to various newspapers, including The Guardian and The Washington Post, from Lais Hotels via St. Catharines-based Meridian Credit Union. In the case of two ads placed in The Globe, internal records show both were paid for in advance by a “Mr. Li,” with no mention of any other company or person.

According to the prosecution case, Mr. Lai was the secret mastermind of the international sanctions campaign, part of a wider scheme to collude with foreign powers to undermine Hong Kong.

But in his testimony, Mr. Li made clear the plan was already under way before any company linked to Mr. Lai allegedly became involved. He said at least three people were involved in handling funds, while others wrote and designed the ads and looked for suitable newspapers in which to publish them.

Mr. Li added that at one point Mr. Chan said, “those above him” were “not comfortable with the money being in arrears” and pushed for quicker repayment.

Finn Lau, a founder of Stand With Hong Kong who now lives in exile in the U.K., previously told The Globe, “in essence, all financial resources came from public crowdfunding,” adding that if Mr. Lai, a multimillionaire, had been a secret backer of the campaign, there would have been no need for crowdfunding.

In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Lau said he believed Mr. Li’s testimony was “coerced” and that Hong Kong authorities “want the world, including other Hong Kongers, to believe that everything back in 2019 was controlled and plotted by Jimmy Lai,” in order to obfuscate “the truth of the leaderless nature of the movement.”

All of the activity Mr. Li testified about Wednesday took place before the Beijing-imposed national security law came into force. In theory, the law is not retroactive, but activities that predate its passage can be taken into account by courts.

Mr. Lai has pleaded not guilty to two charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces under the national security law, as well as an additional charge under colonial-era legislation of conspiracy to publish seditious material. The 76-year-old faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

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