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Hong kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, in Hong Kong, on June 16, 2020.ANTHONY WALLACE/Getty Images

The trial of Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai, initially expected to last 80 days, could drag on for the rest of this year, with half the scheduled witnesses still to testify.

Mr. Lai, the 76-year-old former publisher of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is charged with conspiracy to collude with external forces, sedition and other offences. He faces life in prison if found guilty.

He was arrested in August, 2020, a month after Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong in response to often violent anti-government protests the year before, which prosecutors have accused Mr. Lai of orchestrating. While he and Apple Daily openly supported the pro-democracy movement, their influence over the radical, youth-led protests was limited.

Mr. Lai’s trial began Dec. 18, 2023, and was expected to last about three months. But the proceedings, which entered their 74th day on Friday, will go on longer than expected, with prosecutors introducing reams of documents related to Apple Daily, Mr. Lai’s communications and his other businesses. The trial is being conducted in English, but most of the testimony is being given in Cantonese, requiring interpretation.

This week saw a lengthy exchange between witness Royston Chow, the former chief financial officer at Apple Daily parent Next Digital, and Mr. Lai’s lawyers regarding the ownership of Ontario hotel chain Lais Hotel Properties Ltd.

Mr. Chow had said Mr. Lai was directly involved in running the hotel chain, through which he channelled payments for an international campaign calling for support of the Hong Kong protests. Mr. Lai’s defence team said the hotel was owned by a trust.

Lais has not responded to repeated requests for comment about Mr. Lai or the trial.

Prosecutors have linked the 2019 campaign to sanctions imposed against Hong Kong by the United States and other countries and have alleged Mr. Lai was intimately involved, something campaign organizers now in exile have denied.

Star prosecution witness Andy Li, the only organizer in custody, testified in March that companies linked to Mr. Lai, including Lais Hotels, helped facilitate advance payments for advertisements in newspapers, including The Guardian and The Washington Post, which Mr. Li later repaid using funds raised online.

In his testimony, Mr. Li made clear that 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.

That included The Globe and Mail. Payments for two ads placed in the newspaper in 2019 were made in advance by a “Mr. Li,” with no mention of any other company or person, internal records show.

Concerns have been raised about the reliability of Mr. Li’s testimony – including by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – after reports that he was abused while in custody in mainland China in 2020. He was arrested after attempting to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan.

Other witnesses have testified about Mr. Lai’s decision to set up an English-language version of Apple Daily – intended, prosecutors say, to lobby for sanctions – and his close supervision of the day-to-day business of the paper, including commissioning op-eds and directing coverage.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a member of Mr. Lai’s international legal team – which is not involved in the Hong Kong trial – has said many of the accusations amount to “conspiracy to commit journalism.”

The 2020 security law is not retroactive, but judges have ruled that actions before its passage can be taken into account and that some offences – such as lobbying for sanctions – can be deemed “continuing” if their effects are still in force.

In March, Hong Kong lawmakers passed a second, even more expansive security law, Article 23, criminalizing treason, insurrection, sedition, sharing of state secrets and colluding with external forces, among other offences.

The new law could have major implications for international media operating in Hong Kong. Radio Free Asia, which receives funding indirectly from the U.S. government, quit the city before Article 23 came into force.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Court of Appeals upheld a government injunction banning the protest song Glory to Hong Kong, which was popularized during the 2019 unrest and has embarrassed the government on multiple occasions when it was mistakenly played at sporting events instead of the Chinese national anthem.

Officials have said they will enforce the injunction against online platforms – including YouTube and Spotify – that currently host the song, potentially setting up a showdown with Western tech firms that are banned or tightly regulated in China but have so far operated without significant censorship in Hong Kong.

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