Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai AFP

A Hong Kong court on Friday rejected jailed pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai's bid to throw out a charge of seditious publication in a trial that has attracted international attention.

The trial began Monday for Lai, who is charged with "collusion" with foreign forces under a Beijing-imposed national security law, a charge that carries a potential life sentence.

He is also accused of "conspiracy to produce seditious publications" -- a colonial-era offence that has been revived after decades of disuse -- which is considered a lesser charge as it carries a shorter jail sentence if convicted.

His lawyers earlier argued that the sedition charge should be tossed out as the prosecution began too late, beyond the six-month time limit stipulated by Hong Kong law.

"We are of the view the charge is not time-barred, so the application of the defence must fail," Judge Esther Toh ruled Friday, agreeing with prosecutors' interpretation of how to calculate that window.

The case has been adjourned to January 2, when prosecutors are expected to make opening arguments.

Lai, 76, is the founder of the now-shuttered Chinese-language tabloid Apple Daily, which often criticised Beijing and supported the huge pro-democracy protest movement that roiled Hong Kong in 2019.

His case is being closely watched as a barometer of Hong Kong's political freedoms and judicial independence.

Dozens of armed police were deployed around the Hong Kong court building Friday, where activist Alexandra Wong -- better known as "Grandma Wong" -- was the sole protester expressing support for Lai.

Present at Friday's brief hearing were Lai's family members, media and a handful of representatives from foreign consulates.

He smiled and waved to his family when entering the courtroom, and his daughter made a "heart" sign with her hands.

Lai is a British citizen and his trial has sparked condemnation from the United States and the UK -- which have both called for his release -- as well as the European Union and United Nations.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, UK minister of state for the Indo-Pacific, said Monday that Britain "continue to ask for consular access for Jimmy Lai".

Beijing has dismissed the international criticism as "blatant political manoeuvring".