US Commission to Advocate for Release of Detained Hong Kong Media Tycoon Jimmy Lai

December 17, 2020 Updated: December 17, 2020

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal commission, has added detained Hong Kong activist and media tycoon Jimmy Lai to its Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project.

The USCIRF project is a campaign intended to draw attention to individuals who are imprisoned, detained, under house arrest, or have disappeared because of exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Each of the USCIRF commissioners can “adopt” individuals to consistently advocate for their release.

On Dec. 16, USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore announced his adoption of Lai through the project.

“Communist China must immediately release Jimmy Lai along with Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and others who it has detained in Hong Kong for their advocacy of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom,” Moore said in a statement.

“A proud and strong nation has nothing to fear from the criticism of its citizens. The abysmal human rights and religious freedom record of China is incompatible with its national ambition. This is the real threat to China—not its own citizens,” he added.

On Dec. 11, Lai was charged on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security,” for his activities between July 1 and Dec. 1 this year. The collusion charge makes Lai the first high-profile democracy activist in Hong Kong to be charged under the so-called national security law.

Beijing implemented the national security law on June 30, which punishes vaguely-defined crimes such as subversion, secession, and collusion with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Critics have said that the law has further taken away what’s remaining of basic freedoms in the Chinese-ruled city.

Lai was denied bail after a court appearance on Dec. 12, as a local magistrate adjourned the case until April 2021, when the Hong Kong court will also hear a separate fraud charge against him.

Wong, the iconic leader of the 2014 Umbrella pro-democracy movement, was sentenced to 13 1/2 months in prison in early December over his involvement in a protest in June 2019. Wong’s activist colleague, Agnes Chow, was given a 10-month sentence over her role in the same protest.

“The world must speak with one loud and united voice against these atrocities. I raise my voice for Jimmy Lai and all those like him,” Moore said.

Nathan Law, a Hong Kong activist currently in exile in London, said Lai is being targeted with a “trump-up charge,” during a prepared statement for a U.S. Senate hearing on Dec. 16. Law said the police’s cited evidence to charge Lai, including his interviews with Western media, such as Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and BBC News, is drawn on such a “wide basis that everyone could have crossed the lines.”

Other names currently on the USCIRF project include Hu Shigen, a Chinese underground church leader and religious freedom advocate.

Hu was arrested during a July 2015 mass crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists across China, commonly known as the 709 incident. In August 2016, he was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison after being found guilty of “subversion of state power.”

In September, the Chinese human rights watchdog Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch reported that Hu was again denied medical parole, after his family visited him at a prison in the Chinese city of Tianjin in August. He suffered from coronary artery disease prior to his imprisonment and had a heart attack in 2018 while in prison.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer