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Perspective: The World Must Urge China to Free Jimmy Lai

The world needs to keep its eye on Jimmy Lai.

The Hong Kong pro-democracy journalist was sentenced April 16 to 14 months in prison for what mainland China authorities called “unauthorized assembly.”

Just hours earlier, Lai, publisher of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper – a frequent critic of Beijing – received a Free Expression Award from the Freedom Forum.

Lai and several others were given prison terms as part of a long-term crackdown by mainland authorities on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms – once guaranteed when the British returned the city to Chinese control in 1996.

As Lai, 73, and others enter the notoriously harsh Chinese prison system, free press advocates need to keep pressure on Beijing leaders to ensure his safety. China jailed at least 47 journalists in 2020, according to the watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Following Lai’s sentencing, the state-run newspaper Ta Kung Pao called for Apple Daily and other newspapers to be shuttered, as ongoing threats to China’s security and stability. Apple Daily responded in a statement: “Let’s stand tall in fallen times.”

Under the newly imposed, draconian National Security Law, Lai also faces another six charges – two carrying a potential life sentence.

A terrible irony in Lai’s time in jail will be that he didn’t need to be there. In a video interview that was part of the Free Expression Festival leading up to the awards, Lai’s good friend, Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn, said Lai “could have lived anywhere. But he’s a fighter … He could have left Hong Kong anytime and not been subject to these arrests.

“But he watched other people get arrested … and he said I’m not going to run. This guy chose a jail cell,” McGurn said.

Consider for a moment what that choice means: Earlier this year, news reports noted the arrest and abuse of a 37-year-old citizen-journalist in China, who had been reporting the effects of COVID-19 on those around her. While in custody, her hands were tied to her waist and she has been force-fed through a tube inserted into her stomach. By December, she was suffering headaches, stomach problems, low blood pressure and a throat infection. Other journalists have detailed beatings, torture and forced hard labor in unspeakable living conditions.

Earlier this week, a letter from Lai – as he awaited sentencing – was printed in Apple Daily. In his handwritten note, he said, “It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice. As long as we are not blinded by unjust temptations, as long as we do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility.”

In accepting the award Thursday evening on behalf of his father, Sebastien Lai told the virtual FEA audience, “It has been a tough year, where we have seen the erosion of freedom of speech around the world. This has been especially visible in Hong Kong. Many of the rights that we used to take for granted have now been taken from – us as you can see from the 47 people who have been recently charged for what essentially is inciting democracy.”

Worldwide, CPJ reports three journalists have been killed thus far in 2021, more than 270 imprisoned through 2020 and 66 more are missing. Lai is the latest to be jailed – but unlikely to be the last – for what Lai said so well: “Fulfilling our responsibility.”

Now it’s our turn to take up that responsibility. We cannot permit China to simply drop Lai into its massive network of jails, prisons and concentration camps, to suffer out of sight – and Beijing no doubt hopes, out of mind. No matter whether that’s for 14 months or the rest of his life.

Write, protest, blog, post, whatever, however and whenever we can – using our First Amendment rights in this nation to build and sustain a worldwide movement to defend Lai’s rights in his. Free Jimmy Lai.

Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

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