British lawyer David Perry was scheduled to prosecute a group of veteran activists in Hong Kong including media tycoon Jimmy Lai and ‘father of democracy’ Martin Lee © AFP via Getty Images

David Perry, the British lawyer who was hired by the Hong Kong government to prosecute a group of pro-democracy activists, has stepped down following withering criticism from the UK government.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary and a former human rights lawyer, had labelled the barrister a “mercenary”, adding that he was unable to understand how anyone could take on the case “in good conscience”.

Mr Perry was hired by Hong Kong authorities to prosecute a group of veteran activists including Jimmy Lai, the media mogul, and Martin Lee, who helped write the territory’s mini-constitution governing its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. The trial was set to begin on February 16.

The Hong Kong justice department said on Wednesday: “Mr Perry, QC, expressed concerns about such pressures and the exemption of quarantine, and indicated that the trial should proceed without him.”

“In light of the public interest involved and the imminent trial date, the [Department of Justice] has instructed another counsel to prosecute the trial as scheduled.”

Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last year following pro-democracy protests in the city in 2019. Critics say the harsh new measures have threatened the city’s independent judiciary and its status as a financial hub.

Hong Kong authorities have used the law to stage a crackdown on the opposition, arresting pro-democracy lawmakers and detaining at least 53 activists in a raid this month.

Albert Ho, part of the group on trial, had called Mr Perry’s participation “shameful”. The group was accused of organising unlawful assemblies during the protests. “The Hong Kong government should be more aware of the international concern over the matter,” Mr Ho told the Financial Times as he welcomed the resignation.

Mr Lee, 82, has been dubbed Hong Kong’s “father of democracy” after helping to write the legal framework that has underpinned the territory’s governance. He said he was “proud” to be a defendant in the case.

The 73-year-old Mr Lai’s campaigning pro-democracy tabloid, Apple Daily, has long irritated local authorities. Mr Lai’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Allies of Mr Perry said he was acting under the “cab rank” principle, whereby barristers take cases as they come up. Other lawyers, however, have argued the principle did not apply when accepting overseas cases.

Mr Raab told the BBC at the weekend that a barrister could resist such a case “under the bar code of ethics”.

He added: “From Beijing’s point of view, this would be a serious PR coup.”

Grenville Cross, the former director of public prosecutions in Hong Kong, said the pressure Mr Perry faced was part of a deliberate effort to weaken the city's legal system. “This may play well with the anti-China lobby in the UK, it will dismay everyone in Hong Kong who values the rule of law,” he said.

CY Leung, Hong Kong’s former chief executive from 2012-17, said the pressure on Mr Perry was “naked political intervention” from the UK.

Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong

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