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 found guilty on Saturday of two counts of fraud for concealing the operations of a private company, Dico Consultants Ltd, at the headquarters of the now-closed Apple Daily newspaper in what has been ruled as violation of his land. to rent out.
Arrested and charged for the first time in December 2020, the fierce spokesperson for China served 20 months in prison for unauthorized gatherings during mass pro-democracy protests in 2019. Nine others served prison terms or suspended sentences.
Lai was the head of 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 judgment written 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 “did not amount to an attack on freedom of the press”.
The prosecution said the newspaper could only be used for “editing and printing” without prior approval from the operator, due to its terms of renting on government-owned land. Acknowledging much of the prosecution record, Lai’s sentence was reduced by three months.
Western governments, including the United Statesexpressed concern about Lai’s fate and condemned what they call a broader deterioration in the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms under a national security law imposed by China.
“Beijing’s elaborate criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a vendetta against a leading proponent of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, Asia director at advocacy group Human Rights Watch. based in New York, calling for Lai’s release.
Derek Chan, Lai’s lawyer, had urged the judge to consider Lai’s age and his contributions to Hong Kong’s media industry.
A separate, landmark national security trial involving Lai is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.
It has been delayed while Beijing decides the contentious issue of whether foreign lawyers, including Lai’s British lawyer Timothy Owen, should be allowed to work on national security cases.
Lai faces a maximum life sentence for two counts of conspiracy to commit collusion 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 related to the Apple Daily newspaper.