A Hong Kong court on Saturday sentenced jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai to five years and nine months in prison for fraud, in the latest legal challenge against the pro-democracy mogul.
Lai was found to have breached the terms of the lease of the headquarters of his now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper after he concealed the operation of a consultancy firm that provided corporate secretarial services to controlled private companies by Lay.
In addition to the prison sentence, Lai was also fined HK$2 million ($257,000) and disqualified as a company director for eight years.
Wong Wai Keung, chief administrative officer of Apple’s parent company Daily Next Digital and a co-defendant, was sentenced to 21 months in prison.
In October, Lai and Wong were both found guilty of fraud by the same court. Both pleaded not guilty.
Lai, who has been remanded in custody for nearly two years, also faces trial under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law.
Since the security law was imposed by Beijing in 2020, in response to massive protests against the government, authorities have cracked down on dissent.
Activists, protesters and journalists have been imprisoned, civil society paralyzed and a number of independent media outlets shut down.
Lai, 74, is one of Beijing’s most prominent critics charged under the law and faces a maximum life sentence for colluding with foreign forces. He also faces a charge under a colonial-era sedition law and was sentenced to 13 months in prison in 2021 for participating in an unauthorized protest.
His pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily was among the newspapers forced to close since the law was implemented, after police raided the newsroom and authorities froze its assets.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied criticism that the law has stifled freedoms, saying instead it has restored order to the city after protests in 2019.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, continues to use the common law system inherited from Britain.
Its independent judiciary and rule of law have long been seen as key to the city’s success as a global financial center – although many legal experts have expressed doubts since the security law was introduced, including including two British judges who resigned earlier this year, saying the city had “strayed from the values of political freedom”.
The city legal system generally allows foreign judges in city courts, and attorneys from other common law jurisdictions may work on cases where their expertise is needed.
However, cases under national security law are handled by a dedicated branch of the Hong Kong police and designated national security judges, raising concerns about Beijing’s potential influence on proceedings.
Lai was also at the center of this debate. In November, Hong Kong’s highest court upheld a verdict allowing a British lawyer to represent the tycoon in his national security case. The city’s chief executive, John Lee, has since said he will ask Beijing to determine whether foreign lawyers can work on national security cases in the city.