The British barrister hired to run the prosecution of prominent Hong Kong activists, including the media mogul Jimmy Lai and former lawmaker Martin Lee, has pulled out of the case after widespread criticism in the UK.
David Perry, QC, was announced last week as lead prosecutor in the upcoming trial of nine well-known Hong Kong pro-democracy activists on charges of unlawful assembly.
But the distinguished lawyer’s decision to act for the government sparked controversy in Britain. He came under fire from politicians and lawyers who viewed his move as supporting what they see as a crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong.
On Sunday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab led criticism of Perry’s involvement as “pretty mercenary”.
“I understand in the case of Mr Perry, in relation to the pro-democracy activists, and of course from Beijing’s point of view, this would be a serious PR coup,” Raab told Sky news.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Department of Justice said “growing pressure and criticism from the UK community”, as well as the city’s lengthy quarantine requirements during the coronavirus pandemic, had led to Perry pulling out.
“Mr Perry, QC, expressed concerns about such pressures… and indicated that the trial should proceed without him,” the department said in a statement, calling criticism of Perry’s role in upcoming trials “ill-informed”.
Unlike the opaque, party-controlled legal system on China’s mainland, where conviction rates are around 99%, Hong Kong maintains an independent common law system which has formed the bedrock of the city’s economic success.
It is not unusual for lawyers from other common law jurisdictions overseas to work in Hong Kong, both on defence and prosecution teams, as well as in commercial and contract law; and foreign judges also do stints on the city’s top court.
Perry has been a regular Department of Justice pick to prosecute high-profile cases, but his dropping out of this trial illustrates the quandary foreign lawyers and judges can now face in engaging with Hong Kong’s legal system, which has come under enormous pressure recently.
Last year, following huge and often violent pro-democracy protests in 2019, Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong which effectively criminalised much dissent in a city supposedly guaranteed key liberties and autonomy.
It also toppled the legal firewall between the two territories, giving China jurisdiction over major national security cases and allowing its security agents to operate openly in the city for the first time.
Nearly 100 people have been arrested since the law came in and could face life sentences if convicted.
The trial Perry was involved in is not a national security prosecution.
Instead it centres on the involvement of nine of the city’s most prominent activists on charges of attending or organising some of 2019’s democracy protests. (Source: Bangkok Post)