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Media tycoon Jimmy Lai next to a copy of the Apple Daily newspaper, in Hong Kong, on July 1, 2020.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

Owning copies of the shuttered Apple Daily newspaper could be considered seditious in Hong Kong under a tough new security law expected to come into force next month.

The pro-democracy tabloid closed in June, 2021, after the arrest of publisher Jimmy Lai and other top executives. Thousands queued overnight to grab one of a million copies of its final edition, with the headline “Hong Kongers bid a painful farewell.” Many people still have it displayed in their homes as a small gesture of defiance, along with other famous front pages depicting mass protests, the annual Tiananmen Square massacre memorial or the territory’s 1997 handover to China.

Speaking to legislators as they race to pass the new security law, Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang said the publication date “does not matter … when one possesses a publication with seditious intention.”

Unless they have a “reasonable excuse” – Mr. Tang gave as an example forgetting they had such a publication in their possession – someone convicted of this offence would face three years in prison.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Hong Kong government reiterated Mr. Tang’s comments about the “reasonable excuse” defence but said the suggestion people could be “imprisoned for possessing certain old newspapers” was “completely wrong.”

Since an earlier national security law was imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020 – after mass anti-government protests the year before – multiple publications have closed down, dozens of books have been pulled from libraries and bookshops and hundreds of journalists have moved overseas.

Founded by Mr. Lai ahead of Hong Kong’s handover to China, Apple Daily became the city’s most-read newspaper, popular for its muckraking reporting, celebrity gossip and cheerleading of the pro-democracy movement.

Officials have accused Mr. Lai of being a puppet master of the 2019 protests and colluding with foreign powers to undermine Hong Kong and China, even though, during the largely leaderless unrest, he and other members of the traditional pro-democracy movement played a marginal role and were occasionally at odds with the mostly younger, more radical protesters.

Mr. Lai is facing charges under the 2020 national security law, as well as conspiracy to print and distribute seditious publications under a colonial-era ordinance. If convicted, the 76-year-old faces life in prison.

In court Tuesday, Mr. Lai sat impassively as his lawyers cross-examined Yeung Ching-kee, a former head of Apple Daily’s opinion section, who is testifying for the prosecution.

Mr. Lai’s legal team have said the case against him amounts to conspiracy to commit journalism. Under questioning, Mr. Yeung agreed with Mr. Lai’s barrister Robert Pang that while articles in the paper could be “quite critical” of the governments of both Hong Kong and China, this was in the spirit of “pointing out deficiencies … in the hope that they would be corrected,” not “criticism purely for criticism.”

Mr. Yeung, who has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, is one of a number of former allies of Mr. Lai testifying against him.

The most prominent of these is Andy Li, a programmer who was closely involved in international fundraising and lobbying efforts during the 2019 unrest. He has said Mr. Lai directed that work, which included encouraging foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong officials, a claim other organizers have denied.

Mr. Li was among 12 former protesters who attempted to escape Hong Kong by boat to Taiwan but were detained by the Chinese coast guard and imprisoned in mainland China before being transferred back to the city. Questions have been raised over the reliability of Mr. Li’s testimony after accusations emerged that he was abused during his time in Chinese custody.

Alice Edwards, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, has called on Hong Kong and China to investigate these allegations, a demand she reiterated before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week.

Mr. Lai’s legal team has urged the court not to allow Mr. Li to appear until the government addresses concerns about his testimony, but in court Tuesday prosecutors indicated they would call Mr. Li as their next witness, to take the stand Wednesday morning.

“Despite this concerning publicly available information, based on credible evidence, neither China nor the Hong Kong SAR have taken steps to comply with their obligations to independently investigate the allegations,” 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.”

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