Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy Hong Kong tycoon, was sentenced to five years, nine months imprisonment for fraud. He was convicted for violating a lease agreement for the headquarter of a liberal newspaper he once ran.
Lai (75) was found guilty on two counts for fraud in covering up operations of Dico Consultants Ltd at headquarters of now closed Apple Daily newspaper. This was considered a violation of its land lease.
Lai, Hong Kong’s foremost China critic and currently in prison since December 2020. He has also served 20 months of unauthorised assembly sentences.
Next Digital was his company’s parent, and he was also the chief of Next Digital. Apple Daily closed down in June 2021 following a raid by the police.
Wong Waikeung (61), another Next Digital executive was found guilty and sentenced to 21 months in prison.
Stanley Chan, District Court Judge wrote that Lai “acted under the protection of a media organisation”. Chan stated that the prosecution of Lai by a media mogul was not equivalent to an attack against press freedom.
Lai’s confessions were part of Lai’s defense, which the judge reduced by three months.
The United States and other Western countries expressed concern over Lai’s situation and denounced what they called a wider deterioration of protections for fundamental freedoms and human rights under China’s National Security Law.
Maya Wang (Asia director at Human Rights Watch in New York) stated that “Beijing’s complex criminal case against Jimmy Lai was a vendetta to a leading proponent for democracy and media freedoms in Hong Kong.” She called on Lai’s release.
Prosecutors claimed that the lease conditions for the newspaper on land owned by the government in a science-park meant the property could not be used except to publish and print without the prior permission of the operator.
Chan issued an order preventing Lai’s participation in any directorship for eight years. He also fined Lai HK$2,000,000 ($260,000).
Derek Chan, Lai’s lawyer, asked the judge to take into account Lai’s contributions to Hong Kong’s media sector and his age.
On Tuesday, a separate landmark national security case involving Lai will resume. The trial was put on hold while Beijing decided on controversial issues such as whether foreign lawyers including Timothy Owen (a British barrister) should be permitted to assist in national security cases.