Hong Kong pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai was charged with fraud and sentenced to five years and nine months in prison.
The 75-year-old billionaire was convicted on Saturday of two counts of fraud for covering up the operations of a private company, Dico Consultants Ltd, at the headquarters of the now-closed Apple Daily newspaper, in what was called a violation of its land lease.
Arrested and first charged in December 2020, fierce Chinese critic served 20 months unauthorized assemblies during mass pro-democracy protests in 2019. Nine others served prison sentences or suspended sentences.
Lai headed Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily which was shut down in June 2021 following a police raid. Wong Wai-keung, 61, another Next Digital executive, was convicted of fraud and jailed for 21 months.
A written ruling by District Court Judge Stanley Chan wrote that Lai had “acted under the protective umbrella of a media organization.” He added that prosecuting a media mogul “didn’t amount to an attack on press freedom.”
The prosecution said the newspaper could only be used for “publishing and printing” without prior approval from the operator, due to its lease terms on a government parcel of land. Acknowledging much of the prosecution’s case, Lai’s sentence was reduced by three months.
Governments in the West, including the United Statesthey expressed concern about Lai’s plight and condemned what they term a broader deterioration in the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms under a Chinese-imposed national security law.
“Beijing’s elaborate prosecution of Jimmy Lai is revenge against a leading advocate of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch. York, demanding Lai’s release.
Derek Chan, Lai’s lawyer, had urged the judge to consider Lai’s age and contributions to the Hong Kong media industry.
A separate and historic national security trial involving Lai is expected to resume on Tuesday.
It has been delayed as Beijing decides on the controversial question of whether foreign lawyers, including Lai’s British lawyer Timothy Owen, should be allowed to work on national security cases.
Lai faces the maximum possible life sentence on two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign countries or outside elements, and one count of collusion with foreign forces under the National Security Act.
He also faces a sedition charge linked to the Apple Daily newspaper.