Sebastien Lai – the son of imprisoned pro-democracy campaigner, publisher and writer Jimmy Lai – addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday.
Throughout the 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, China and Hong Kong
attracted criticism and concern over Lai’s ongoing detention and prosecution.
Sebastien Lai addressed the Council during the interactive dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, on behalf of PEN International.
Mr Lai’s case was also raised during the session by Tatyana Eatwell, a member of the international legal team.
Both Sebastien Lai and Eatwell highlighted the disproportionate sentences that Mr Lai has faced as a result of his participation in the peaceful protests to mark the commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre and as part of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
They both also raised Mr Lai’s upcoming trial, scheduled for September, under the controversial National Security Law.
Mr Lai faces life in prison for his work campaigning for democracy in Hong Kong and defending the rights of all Hong Kong residents.
Both speakers were interrupted by Chinese representatives, who raised objections to the contents of the addresses and asked the President to cut off Lai and Eatwell.
China alleged that Lai “exaggerated” the trials faced by his father and that Eatwell “attacked the political system in China contrary to the principles and purposes of the United Nation’s Charter”.
On both occasions, China’s objection was overruled and the floor was returned to Lai and Eatwell.
In response to the addresses, the UN Special Rapporteur Voule expressed his “support and solidarity with the son of Jimmy Lai” and called for China to release Jimmy Lai – as well as “all those detained currently for their fight for democracy and the rule of law” in Hong Kong.
In his address to the UN Human Rights Council, Lai said: “If you’d told me two years ago that someone from my family would be addressing the UN, none of us would have expected that family member to be me. We would all have expected it to be my father.
“I’m Sebastien Lai, and my father is Jimmy Lai. He isn’t here because he is in prison in Hong Kong SAR. That’s why today I have to be his voice. My dad has served lengthy prison sentences for exercising his right to peaceful protest. For peaceful attendance at pro-democracy demonstrations. For lighting a candle at a Tiananmen Square massacre vigil.
“Now, he is awaiting trial under the National Security Law for defending liberty. He faces life in prison.
The China and Hong Kong SAR government tried to silence my dad by throwing him in jail.
“But that silence is deafening.
“Today I want the whole world to hear his story. There is a broader trend of the Hong Kong SAR government locking up people who criticise them. There are now over 1,400 political prisoners. At 75, my father is the oldest – and I fear I may never see him again.
“I call on Hong Kong to stop criminalising those who peacefully protest and advocate for democracy. And to drop all charges against my dad, before it is too late.”
In her address to the UN Human Rights Council, Eatwell said: “In 1997 China undertook to respect the rights and freedoms guaranteed to people in Hong Kong SAR under the ICCPR, including the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
“In 2019 and 2020 Hong Kongers gathered en masse to call for democracy and for respect for those rights, as guaranteed by law. The protests were met with police violence, and the arrest and detention of pro-democracy activists whose activities were entirely peaceful.”
Hong Kong now has one of the fastest-growing political prisoner populations in the world – from 26 in 2019 to over 1,400 in May 2023. Prominent voices of the pro-democracy movement, including Jimmy Lai, have been sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment in violation of the right to peaceful protest. Jimmy Lai’s so-called “crimes” include his peaceful attendance at a vigil commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, for which he was sentenced to 13 months.
Jimmy Lai has also been convicted of sham fraud charges and is now awaiting trial for alleged sedition and offences under the National Security Law for his pro-democracy work.
Earlier this week, specific concerns about Lai’s conviction and imprisonment for his participation in peaceful demonstration were also raised by the United Kingdom and the United States.
However, since it was passed by China’s legislature on 30th June 2020 the National Security Law for Hong Kong has been widely and internationally condemned, including by United Nations experts, the European Parliament, the European Union External Action Service, Governments and expert NGOs.
At the time, Amnesty International said, “The law is dangerously vague and broad: virtually anything could be deemed a threat to “national security” under its provisions, and it can apply to anyone on the planet.”
Commenting on China’s attempts to silence Sebastien Lai and Tatyana Eatwell on Friday, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, who leads the international legal team for Sebastien Lai and Jimmy Lai, said: “China’s conduct at the Human Rights Council in Geneva today shows they will stop at nothing to silence criticism. They will even interrupt a son speaking out for his father.
“A lawyer speaking out for her client. NGOs speaking out about the erosion of democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law in Hong Kong.
“This is a bully State, using every tool in its armoury to silence, to intimidate and to threaten. We thank the UN Special Rapporteur and the UN Human Rights Council for standing up to China today, and allowing Sebastien Lai’s and Tatyana Eatwell’s voices to be heard.”
Lai and Eatwell’s addresses to the Council followed the earlier urgent appeals made to a group of UN experts in April 2022 and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in July 2022 on behalf of Mr Lai, which promoted a UN complaint being communicated to Hong Kong and China earlier this year. Further complaints have since been made to the UN Special Procedures in 2023 related to reprisals by the Hong Kong authorities against Mr Lai and his legal team for their engagement at the UN.
Jimmy Lai and Sebastien Lai are represented by an international legal team, led by Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC and including Jonathan Price, Tatyana Eatwell, Jennifer Robinson and Clare Wisson.