Jimmy Lai (Photo supplied via HKFP)
A court in Hong Kong convicted Catholic media mogul and pro-democracy supporter Jimmy Lai of two charges of fraud, which activists say is another blow to press freedom and democracy in the politically troubled former British colony.
Lai, 74, the founder of now-defunct pro-democracy Apple Daily and chief of its parent company, Next Digital, was found guilty in the court on Oct. 25 during a hearing on two fraud charges. He had earlier pleaded not guilty to the charges.
He appeared in the court with Wong Wai-keung, the administrative director of Next Digital. The pair along with Next Digital’s former chief operating officer Chow Tat-kuen and “other persons” are accused of concealing that Next Digital’s office in Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate was used for purposes other than those stated in the lease, Hong Kong Free Press reported.
They were also accused of “falsely representing” that the premises were used for the purposes stated in the lease between January 1, 2016, and May 19, 2020.
Lai, a close associate of Hong Kong’s outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen, was arrested in 2019 as the pro-Beijing administration unleashed a crackdown to snuff out a strong pro-democracy movement. He remained in jail since December 2020 and faces a series of charges including sedition, incitement, fraud, and collusion with foreign forces under the Beijing-imposed draconian national security law of 2020.
His widely popular pro-democracy Apple Daily was forced to shut down following police raids, the arrest of editors and staff, and the freezing of its bank accounts by the administration.
On April 16, 2021, a court sentenced Lai to 14 months in jail along with eight activists for joining an unauthorized rally on June 2020 to mark the 1989 Tiananmen massacre anniversary.
He is awaiting trial on separate national security law charges, which is expected to be held this December. If found guilty he might be sentenced to life imprisonment.
Jimmy Lai is among hundreds of pro-democracy activists, politicians, supporters, and newsmen in Hong Kong either jailed or facing prosecution under the national security law which effectively denies Hong Kong a higher degree of autonomy and basic freedoms guaranteed during the city’s 1997 British handover to China.
Lai’s latest conviction has triggered international outrage. Rights activists and press freedom advocates slammed Hong Kong’s authorities’ exploitation of the legal system to suppress independent journalism.
"Hong Kong authorities need to stop misusing the court to target people for exercising their rights to freedom," said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
He said that Lai is a symbol of the struggle to maintain peace and freedom in Hong Kong.
"To call it a kangaroo court is unfair to kangaroos!" Mark Clifford, president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong and former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, told Axios.
“This is the 5th conviction HK authorities have successfully sought on #JimmyLai in 18 months. Lai has been in custody for over 680 days since Dec 2020,” tweeted Xinqi Su, Hong Kong correspondent for AFP.
“Latest show trial against #HongKong Apple Daily publisher + freedom advocate Jimmy Lai has unsurprisingly convicted. This is an indictment only of #HongKong’s now-CCP-controlled legal system,” said Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch.
She condemned China as the “worst jailer of journalists.”
Lai told CPJ that he plans to appeal the charges.