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A Hong Kong publisher who found himself in a fortune has faced a lawsuit under the security law

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HONG KONG (AP) — Jimmy Lai burst into Hong Kong’s turbulent media world 30 years ago, armed with the belief that delivering information is equal to protecting freedom.

Lai’s own freedom is in jeopardy as he battles accusations of endangering national security as the former publisher of his now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily.

Having already served 20 months for other crimes, Lai, 74, could face up to life in prison if convicted under the sweeping National Security Act, which Beijing has imposed on the former British colony, silencing or jailing many about – democratic activists.

The high-profile trial, which is due to start on Thursday, has also sparked controversy over whether Lai’s British lawyer will be allowed to defend him. Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader John Lee has asked China to issue a ruling that could bar veteran lawyer Timothy Owen from representing Lai.

If Beijing intervenes, it will be the sixth time the communist government has intervened despite its pledges to respect Hong Kong’s judicial independence and civil liberties for at least 50 years since China took over Britain in 1997.

The Justice Department has asked for a stay of the trial, which will be overseen by three judges, pending a decision on Lai’s Beijing-based lawyer.

Lai’s legal troubles derailed the stunning career of a man who was smuggled to Hong Kong from mainland China at the age of 12.

With only a primary education, he started working in a glove factory and in 1981 worked his way up the career ladder to found the Giordano casual wear chain. After dispersing student pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, he became an outspoken defender of democracy, founding Next magazine a year later.

Attacks on Jordan by the Chinese government prompted Lai to sell his shares in the business and devote himself to the world of media.

In 1995, Lai launched Apple Daily, which quickly became one of the city’s best-selling newspapers with sometimes outrageous coverage of politics and celebrities. The publication survived the newspaper price war and expanded to Taiwan in the 2000s.

Apple Daily pioneered the use of short animated films online to accompany news. His investigations and critical reporting on the government attracted a large following. Apple Daily also took a strong pro-democracy stance, often calling on readers to join the protests.

Lai was involved in mass protests in Hong Kong in 2019, meeting with then-US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss the overturning of legislation that allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China.

Opposition to the bill has escalated into months of sometimes violent protests as demands for more democracy in Hong Kong have escalated.

The protest movement, which was eventually destroyed, had no clear leader, but Lai’s high profile made him a target for the authorities.

Apple Daily condemned the passage of the National Security Act in June 2020. Lai told The Associated Press that “Hong Kong is dead,” but said it would stay.

“If I leave, I will not only disgrace myself, I will discredit Apple Daily, I will undermine the solidarity of the democratic movement,” he said.

In August of the same year, Lai was arrested on suspicion of conspiring with foreign forces. More than 200 officers raided the offices of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily. Arrests of top executives, editors and journalists and a $2.3 million asset freeze forced the paper to close in June 2021. She sold a million copies of her latest edition.

At the latest hearing, Lai appeared tanned, perhaps due to being in the fresh air at Stanley Prison – the city’s largest maximum security facility – and in good spirits.

Lai is charged with two counts of conspiring with foreign powers and one count of conspiracy under the National Security Act. His trial was the first in Hong Kong to focus on charges of “collusion with foreign powers”. Lai was also charged with sedition under a colonial-era law used to suppress dissent.

Lai is due to be sentenced next month for fraud related to the sublease of office space to a company he also controlled.

In a July 2020 interview, Lai seemed unfazed.

“If I have to go to prison, I don’t mind. I don’t care,” he said. “I can’t worry because you never know what action will be taken against me.”

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