Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, looks on as he leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van, in Hong Kong, China February 1, 2021.
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, looks on as he leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van, in Hong Kong, China February 1, 2021. Reuters / TYRONE SIU

Barristers from a British law firm who are representing jailed Hong Kong tycoon and democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai said on Thursday they had received anonymous e-mails warning them against travelling to the city to defend him.

Lai is among the most prominent people in Hong Kong to be charged under a national security law that Beijing imposed in June 2020 to punish terrorism, collusion with foreign forces, subversion and secession with possible life imprisonment.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee of a high degree of autonomy, including freedom of speech, under a "one country, two systems" formula.

Critics of the 2020 law say authorities are using it to stifle dissent, a charge officials in Hong Kong and Beijing reject.

The barristers - Caoilfhionn Gallagher, Jonathan Price and Jennifer Robinson from Doughty Street Chambers - told Reuters the messages came from a generic Gmail address.

"A person that refuses to abide by the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region could be extradited...from other jurisdictions. Foreign nationals will be charged with the offences of subversion," one of the e-mails said. "You have been warned not to attempt entry or land in Chinese territory."

The barristers declined to say if they would be travelling to Hong Kong for the trial.

"Threatening journalists, campaigners and lawyers within Hong Kong has been happening for some time," the barristers said in an e-mail.

"Now these intimidatory tactics are spreading outside the borders of China and Hong Kong."

Police said in a statement they were concerned about the media reports and "strongly condemn the act of impersonating police officers". They appealed to those concerned to provide further information.

The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the barristers would be allowed to enter Hong Kong.

The legal team has filed an appeal with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, declaring Lai's continued imprisonment unlawful.

"My dad's only 'crime' is to campaign for democracy in the face of tyranny, but for that he has already spent over two years in prison and faces the rest of his life behind bars," Lai's son, Sebastien, said in a statement.

"I ask the United Nations and the UK Government to speak out for my dad, and stand up to those who seek to silence him."

Lai is already serving a 13-month sentence after being convicted for his role in an illegal assembly in 2020 to commemorate victims of China's crackdown on democracy activists in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

A fierce critic of Beijing, Lai faces multiple charges under the national security law, including collusion with a foreign country. His complicated legal proceedings are expected to drag on till the end of this year and even into next year, according to some legal analysts.

Baroness Helena Kennedy, Director of the International Bar Association's Institute of Fundamental Rights, condemned what she said was an act of intimidation.

"Intimidating the lawyers who act for citizens pursuing freedom and democracy is the tactic of an authoritarian regime," she said.

"Jimmy Lai's right to instruct international lawyers of his choice is fundamental to a fair trial. The Hong Kong authorities seem to have abandoned the values which underpin the rule of law."