Hong Kong lawmaker blasts Catholic bishops’ petition for release of Jimmy Lai  — By: Catholic News Agency

Jimmy Lai at a Hong Kong protest. / Credit: Courtesy of the Acton Institute

Rome Newsroom, Nov 21, 2023 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

A legislative council member from the pro-Beijing New People’s Party has criticized a joint petition signed by 10 Catholic bishops, including three American prelates, calling for the immediate release of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai.

“The Catholic leaders’ call for Lai’s release is a striking example of religious power being commandeered for political ends,” Dominic Lee Tsz-king said, according to a report in the China Daily on Nov. 15. 

“The very fact that Lai is a Catholic seems to be their only justification for their demand,” he continued. 

“I advise those religious leaders to know when to quit, or else they will have a heavy price to pay.” 

On Sep. 28, the day that marked Lai’s 1,000th day in prison, Lee wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Western media has exploited [Lai’s imprisonment] as a basis for false accusations about Hong Kong’s press freedom.”

“The reality is, Lai being in jail has nothing to do with press freedom, but because he has violated numerous laws,” Lee continued in his post on X. 

Lai, the founder of the now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested in December 2020 and was sentenced in April 2021 to 20 months in jail for unlawful assembly during the 2019 protests against a proposed amendment to the law that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. 

In December 2022, Lai was convicted of fraud, resulting from a contractual dispute involving the use of office space at Apple Daily’s headquarters, and was sentenced to serve an additional prison term of five years and nine months. 

Lai faces additional, more serious accusations under the sweeping National Security Law, which include charges of sedition and conspiracy to collude with foreign forces. 

Lai’s trial, which was scheduled for September, was postponed by a Hong Kong judge and is expected to commence on Dec. 18, the Hong Kong Free Press reported. If convicted Lai could face up to a life sentence in prison.

Following the release of the Nov. 1 petition, the government of Hong Kong issued an immediate statement condemning it as “slanderous” and tantamount to an interference in the internal affairs of the Special Administrative Region. 

“The HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] government firmly rejects and strongly disapproves of the fact-twisting remarks made by the foreign Catholic leaders to inappropriately interfere in the HKSAR’s internal affairs and the HKSAR courts’ independent exercise of judicial power,” the government statement said. “Any person, regardless of his or her identity, who attempts to interfere with the judicial proceedings in the HKSAR in order to procure a defendant’s evasion of the criminal justice process is blatantly undermining the rule of law of the HKSAR.” 

The Nov. 1 petition of the Catholic bishops called for the immediate release of Lai, stating: “There is no place for such cruelty and oppression in a territory that claims to uphold the rule of law and respect the right to freedom of expression.”

“In standing up for his beliefs and committing himself through his faith to challenge autocracy and repression, Jimmy Lai has lost his business, been cut off from his family, and has just surpassed 1,000 days in prison while facing the prospect of many more years of incarceration to come. He is 75 years old. He must be freed now.”

The petition was signed by 10 Catholic prelates from around the world: Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York; Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal (India); Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Archbishop Anthony Fisher, OP (Australia); Archbishop Gintaras Grušas (Lithuania); Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB (Canada); Archbishop John Wilson (United Kingdom); Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota; Bishop Alan A. McGuckian, SJ (Ireland), and Bishop Lucius Ugorji (Nigeria).

Since the controversial National Security Law went into effect in June 2020 there has been a broad erosion of civil liberty in the special administrative region. The law has given the government maximum latitude to interpret threats to national security and the unchecked authority to crack down on any form of perceived political dissidence and public protest. 

There has been a push to further consolidate the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control over religious affairs on the island to increase security and shield itself from increased Western influence. 

Lee’s condemnation of the bishops’ petition came as Archbishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing, of the Chinese patriotic church, completed a three-day visit to the region at the invitation of Cardinal Stephen Chow, bishop of Hong Kong. During the visit, the archbishop reiterated the importance of implementing the program of religious sinicization, which calls for religious practice and belief to conform to the ideological positions of the CCP.

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