A Hong Kong court sentenced media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai to sixty-nine months in prison on Saturday for fraud.
Critics of the move say it’s part of an effort by officials to crack down on dissent, not just one aspect of rule-breaking conduct that includes illegal protest activity.
Lai denied feeling guilty about his actions, so the judge did not reduce his jail sentence. Lai’s former colleague, who was found guilty of fraud in the trial, must now serve 21 months in jail.
Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong billionaire who was arrested during a roundup of pro-democracy activists in 2019 and under the National Security Law imposed by Beijing, was recently fined 2 million Hong Kong dollars ($257,000).
Now shuttered, Apple Daily was an independent media platform owned by Lai that opposed the Chinese Communist Party’s political legitimacy. The publication closed following the arrests of the top executives, editors, and journalists.
In late October, Lai committed fraud by subletting a portion of the office space to a secretarial firm controlled by him between 2016 and 2020.
The second fraud count involved essentially no lease agreements and was for the same secretarial firm using the media outlet’s office space in what was alleged to be an unlawful breach of agreements from 1998 to 2015.
When the factories were occupying the third floor of Lai’s office building, there was a dispute over the lease. The court ruled that Lai had violated lease agreements with the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp.
There was also a concern about Lai hiding whether or not his company was occupying space in the building.
After carefully reviewing all of the evidence, the judge ruled that Lai repeatedly violated laws regarding civil liberties over two decades and said that Lai used his media organization as an “umbrella of protection.”
Lai’s national security trial was also scheduled for 1 Dec, but it was postponed. The Hong Kong leader John Lee is in talks with China to stop Lai from hiring a British lawyer, which is causing the delay.
In the national security trial, if he is found guilty, his lifetime imprisonment is final.
Many prominent democracy activists in the semi-autonomous Chinese city have been arrested as a result of the existence of the new security law.
As Hong Kong was given to China by the Britishers in 1997, their legal system allows foreign judges to be present in their courts. The court also allows foreign lawyers in the court.
Further, the cases under the National Security Law are managed by a designated branch of the Hong Kong Police and appointed judges. This raises concern about the possible influence of Beijing on proceedings.
The question remains as to what will happen in the case of Lai. A British barrister is expected to represent Lai in upcoming hearings. There are already rumors circulating that the Hong Kong government might ask Beijing to take over proceedings if foreign lawyers can be allowed.