Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy Hong Kong tycoon, has been charged and sentenced for fraud. He will spend five years and nine month in prison.
Two counts of fraud were convicted of billionaire, 75, on Saturday for covering up operations of Dico Consultants Ltd at headquarters of now closed Apple Daily newspaper. This was considered a breach of the company’s land lease.
The fierce China critic was first arrested and charged in December 2020. He has been in prison for 20 months for illegal assemblies at mass protests for democracy in 2019. Nine other people were sentenced to jail or suspended sentences.
Lai was the chief of Next Digital, which is the parent company to Apple Daily. It was closed down in June 2021 after a raid by police. Wong Waikeung, 61 was another Next Digital executive and was sentenced to 21 months in prison.
Stanley Chan, District Court Judge, wrote in a judgment that Lai “acted under the protection of a media organisation”. He said that the prosecution against a media tycoon was not equivalent to an attack upon press freedom.
According to the prosecution, the newspaper could not be used for publishing or printing without the prior approval of the operator due to its lease conditions that it occupies a plot on government land. Lai was sentenced to three months less after admitting that much of the prosecutions case was true.
The United States and other west-based governments expressed concern over Lai’s situation and condemned the “broader deterioration” in protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms due to a China-imposed National Security Law.
“Beijing’s complex criminal case against Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong is a vendetta against an important proponent of democracy, media freedom, and media freedom,” Maya Wang, Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said calling for Lai’s release.
Derek Chan, Lai’s lawyer, had asked the judge to take into account Lai’s age and contributions in Hong Kong’s media industry.
On Tuesday, a separate landmark national security trial involving Lai will resume.
The delay was caused by Beijing’s controversial decision on whether foreign lawyers, such as Timothy Owen from Britain, should be allowed into national security cases.
Lai will be sentenced to the maximum life sentence for two charges of conspiracy with foreign countries or elements and one charge of collusion under the national security laws.
A sedition charge is also against him in connection to the Apple Daily newspaper.