A Hong Kong court on Saturday sentenced imprisoned media mogul Jimmy Lai to five years and nine months in prison for fraud, in the latest legal challenge against the pro-democracy tycoon.
Lai was found to have breached the terms of the lease for the now-defunct Apple Daily headquarters after concealing the operation of a consulting firm that provided corporate secretarial services to private companies controlled by Lai.
Besides the prison sentence, Lai was also fined HK$2 million (US$257,000) and disqualified as the company’s director for eight years.
Wong Wai Keung, managing director of Apple Daily’s parent company Next Digital and one of the defendants, was sentenced to 21 months in prison.
In October, Lai Wong was found guilty of fraud by the same court. Both pleaded not guilty.
Lai, who has been in remand for nearly two years, faces trial under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law.
Since Beijing imposed the security law in 2020, in response to massive anti-government protests, the authorities have cracked down on dissent.
Activists, protesters, and journalists have been imprisoned, civil society paralyzed, and a number of independent news outlets closed.
Lai, 74, is one of Beijing’s most vocal critics charged under the law and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for colluding with foreign forces. He also faces one count under the colonial-era sedition law, and was sentenced to 13 months in prison in 2021 for participating in an unauthorized protest.
The pro-democracy Apple Daily was among newspapers forced to close since the law was implemented, after police raided the newsroom and authorities froze its assets.
Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly denied criticism that the law has stifled freedoms, claiming instead that it has restored order in the city after the 2019 protests.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997, continues to use the common law system it inherited from Britain.
An 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 concerns since the introduction of the security law, including two British judges who resigned earlier this year, saying the city had “deviated from the values of liberty”. political”.
The city’s legal system usually allows foreign judges to sit in city courts, and attorneys from other common law jurisdictions can work on cases that require their expertise.
However, cases under the national security law are handled by a dedicated branch of the Hong Kong police and appointed national security magistrates, raising concerns about Beijing’s potential influence over the proceedings.
Lai was also at the center of this discussion. In November, Hong Kong’s highest court upheld a ruling allowing a British lawyer to represent the businessman in a national security case. City Chief Executive John Lee has since said he will ask Beijing to determine whether foreign lawyers can work on national security cases.
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