Six former executives of a now-defunct pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a collusion charge under the national security law that silenced and jailed most opposition voices in the territory of southern China.

Apple Daily staffers were arrested last year during a crackdown on dissent after Beijing imposed sweeping security law in response to widespread anti-government protests in 2019. They were charged with conspiracy to collude with foreign forces to endanger national security.

The law criminalizes acts of succession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. His maximum penalty is life imprisonment. But the six were expected to receive lesser sentences because of their guilty pleas.

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Editor Cheung Kim-hung, associate editor Chan Pui-man, editor-in-chief Ryan Law, executive editor-in-chief Lam Man-chung, and editorial writers Fung Wai-kong and Yeung Ching-kee, admitted to conspiring with newspaper founder Jimmy Lai to call for the imposition of sanctions or a blockade, or engage in other hostile activity against Hong Kong or China.

Prosecutors said three companies connected to Apple Daily were also involved in the conspiracy from July 1, 2020 – the day after the National Security Act was introduced – to the day of the newspaper’s last print edition, June 24, 2021 .

They pointed to the English version of the publication, claiming it was introduced by Lai for the purpose of calling on foreign forces to impose sanctions or be hostile against Hong Kong or China. They said that Lai was the mastermind of the conspiracy and that the six took action to implement the plans. After the security law was enacted, Apple Daily condemned the legislation as an “evil law” and called for resistance, they added.

Hong Kong Police officers escort Cheung Kim-hung, center, CEO and executive director of Next Digital Ltd at the Apple Daily headquarters in Hong Kong. Six former Apple Daily executives pleaded guilty to a collusion charge on Nov. 22, 2022, under the national security law that jailed most opposition voices on Chinese territory.
(AP Photo/Kin Cheung, Files)

Lai and the three companies were expected to plead not guilty to their charge and their trial is due to begin on December 1. If convicted, Lai faces life in prison. If the companies are convicted, they could be fined and the proceeds obtained from crime confiscated.

After hearing their pleas and the prosecution’s case, a High Court judge sentenced the six. Their sentences would be handed down after Lai’s trial.

Among the spectators were local reporters and former Apple Daily employees, who greeted the defendants before and after the hearing.

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Police took away hard drives and laptops as evidence in a raid on the Apple Daily offices in June 2021, sending shockwaves through the city’s media. The arrests of the paper’s top executives, editors and journalists, as well as the freezing of $2.3 million worth of assets, led it to cease operations. It sold one million copies of its final edition.

Hong Kong fell more than 60 spots to 148th in Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index released in May. The media watchdog cited the closure of Apple Daily and Stand News, a vocal online media outlet that gained traction during protests in 2019 but was forced to shut down amid the ongoing crackdown.

The watchdog also said the city’s press freedom has seen “an unprecedented setback” since the introduction of the security law which “serves as a pretext to muzzle independent voices” in the name of fighting crimes against national security.

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Separately, nine people were found guilty of rioting during a violent protest in October 2019 on Tuesday at another Hong Kong court. They were among thousands of residents arrested for their role in widespread protests three years ago.

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