Hong Kong, Dec. 10 (Reuters) – Pro-democracy Hong Kong President Jimmy Lai was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on charges of fraud over breaching a lease agreement for the headquarters of a liberal newspaper he ran.
Lai, 75, was charged with two counts of fraud for covering up the activities of a private firm, Tico Consultants Ltd., at the headquarters of the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper, which was ruled to have breached its land lease.
Lai’s conviction drew American condemnation.
Lai, Hong Kong’s most prominent China critic, has been behind bars since December 2020 and has served 20 months for unauthorized meetings.
He was chairman of Apple Daily’s parent company, Next Digital, which closed in June 2021 after a police raid.
Another Next Digital executive, Wong Wai-kyung, 61, was found guilty of fraud and jailed for 21 months.
District Court Judge Stanley Chan wrote in a ruling that Lai “acted under the protective umbrella of a media organization”. Chan said the case against a media magnate “does not amount to an attack on press freedom”.
The judge deducted three months from his sentence because Lai admitted much of the prosecution’s case.
Western governments, including the United States, have expressed concern over Lai’s plight and condemned what they call a broad deterioration in protections for human rights and fundamental freedoms under China-imposed national security laws.
“The United States condemns the grossly unjust outcome of Jimmy Law’s recent trial and conviction,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“By any objective measure, this decision is neither fair nor just. We again call on the PRC authorities to respect freedom of expression, including that of the press, in Hong Kong,” he added.
Calling for Lai’s release, Maya Wang, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: “Beijing’s sweeping criminal case against Jimmy Lai is retaliation against a leading advocate of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong.”
Under the terms of the journal’s lease on government land in a science park, the property can only be used for “publishing and printing” without the operator’s prior permission, lawyers said.
Chan banned Lai from being a director of any company for eight years and fined him HK$2 million ($260,000).
Lai’s lawyer, Derek Chan, urged the judge to consider Lai’s age and contributions to Hong Kong’s media industry.
A separate, high-profile national security investigation involving Lai is scheduled to resume on Tuesday. It was delayed while Beijing made a decision on the contentious issue of whether foreign lawyers, including Lai’s British barrister Timothy Owen, should be allowed to work on national security cases.
($1 = 7.7854 Hong Kong dollars)
Reporting by Jesse Pong and James Pomfret; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by William Mallard and Daniel Wallis
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