The trial for Jimmy Lai, the Catholic Hong Kong activist and newspaper publisher, opened Monday, launching what is expected to be a protracted legal exhibition capping several years of imprisonment for the embattled pro-democracy advocate.

Lai has been an outspoken advocate of human rights and democratic freedoms in Hong Kong for years. He founded the tabloid Apple Daily in 1995, which took a strong pro-democracy stance in the administrative region.

The activist was originally arrested in August 2020 under that year’s controversial national security law, which was passed by China’s communist-controlled government. The law sharply curtailed free speech in the region in an effort to quash what the Chinese Communist Party considered subversion and sedition in the separately administered region of Hong Kong.

Lai himself was accused of colluding with foreign adversaries and conspiracy to defraud. The law’s harsh penalties include life in prison for what the government deems sedition or terrorism, including acts such as damaging public transport facilities.

He has spent more than 1,000 days in prison since his arrest. His imprisonment has drawn sharp rebukes and calls for clemency from supporters including Catholic bishops. The Catholic University of America in 2022 awarded him an honorary degree after his imprisonment. A film about Lai released earlier this year, meanwhile, amassed more than 1 million views on YouTube and over 4 million views on TikTok in just two weeks.

A Catholic convert, Lai has been vocal in his faith. He was baptized and received into the Church by Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, in 1997. He said in 2020 that his decision to stay in Hong Kong and place himself in danger was informed by his belief in God.

“If I go away, I not only give up my destiny, I give up God, I give up my religion, I give up what I believe in,” he said.

Trial beginning Monday could bring life sentence for Lai

The start of Lai’s trial in Hong Kong sees the activist facing charges of foreign collusion and the publication of seditious materials under the national security law. He faces a potential life sentence if convicted.

Lai has drawn support from a wide variety of advocates in the U.S. and around the world who argue that the trial is a sham meant to enforce political persecution on Lai and others who might speak out against Chinese Communist authorities.

Father Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and the founder of the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, told CNA in a phone interview that he was leery of the prospect of a not-guilty verdict in the trial.

“When was the last time you saw a totalitarian government put someone through their court system and have them come out innocent?” Sirico asked. “I’m at a loss for thinking of an example of that.”

“I don’t have any hope that they’re going to change their mind on it,” he said of Chinese authorities. “We’ve tried to generate support, and we have around the world, but it hasn’t gotten the visibility of a Sharansky or Mandela situation.”

“It’s significant to me that Lai is a journalist,” Sirico said. “I think journalists should have had this on the front burner.”

Lai, Sirico argued, is “manifestly not guilty of treason.”

“He loves China,” he said. “He simply was exercising free speech rights.”

But Lai has “several things going against him,” Sirico argued, including his belief in capitalism and his proactive demonstrations in favor of freedom.

“He’s a Catholic. And we see what the posture of the Chinese government is to religion in general, and Catholicism in particular.

”I want to be hopeful. I love the man,” Sirico said. “I have a deep respect for him. I’m inspired by his bravery. But I know what he’s up against.”

Of particular concern to Lai’s advocates is the possibility that he may be removed to the Chinese mainland at some point, either before the trial or after the potential guilty verdict. Hong Kong, while long existing as a “special administrative region” of China, has for decades enjoyed its distinct forms of local economic and political governance, including freer trade and greater protection of human rights.

“My fear is that they take him to the mainland,” Sirico said. “It takes it off the radar, as much as it’s been on the radar.”

Among Lai’s other supporters is Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who in a statement to CNA slammed what he called the “bogus trial of Jimmy Lai,” which, he said, “sharply symbolizes China’s gutting of Hong Kong’s independence, vibrancy, and democracy.”

Durbin was among the more than 20 senators who signed an October 2022 statement criticizing the “sham conviction” of Lai, who that month was found guilty of “fraud.” The senators at the time accused the Chinese Communist Party of “using bogus fraud charges to smear Mr. Lai’s reputation.”

Durbin this month told CNA that Lai “and so many other political prisoners in Hong Kong should be immediately released.”

“Strong, confident nations shouldn’t be afraid of peaceful political speech,” the senator said.

Among the other signatories of the October statement was Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who posted to X on Friday that China “says that Hong Kong is free and open for business, but then charges its citizens under its ‘national security law’ for sedition for speaking the truth and advocating for human rights.”

“Ahead of Jimmy Lai’s trial, I urge [Hong Kong] authorities to immediately and unconditionally drop all false and politically motivated charges and release him,” Risch wrote. “I will continue to do all that I can to secure his freedom.”

Lai’s case has also drawn the support of the Biden Department of State. After Lai’s fraud conviction, the department in a statement said it condemned the “spurious fraud charges” against the activist.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment from CNA about the start of the trial on Monday. In October of last year, the department said it urged Chinese authorities to “restore respect for press freedom in Hong Kong, where a once-vibrant independent media environment has all but disappeared.”

“Efforts to stifle press freedom and restrict the free flow of information undermine Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and hurt Hong Kong’s credibility as a business and financial hub,” the department said.

Lai’s trial has been seen as a broader indication of China’s enforcement of the 2020 national security law. The measure drew widespread global backlash when it was first passed, with critics accusing Chinese Communist Party leaders of seeking to impose draconian control over the historically freer Hong Kong.

At a press conference last week, Lai’s son, Sebastian Lai, said that Hong Kong “has always been a litmus test of how China views the freedoms that we all share here.”

“What they’re doing to my father is essentially putting all these freedoms on trial,” he said, noting that “all eyes are on Hong Kong at the moment to see how they will prosecute these things that my father stood for very squarely.”