The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hong Kong tycoon and democracy activist given 5-year sentence for fraud

Jimmy Lai leaving Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal in February after a hearing in one of an array of court cases involving the 75-year-old media mogul. (Kin Cheung/AP)
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HONG KONG — Jimmy Lai, an imprisoned media tycoon and pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, was sentenced Saturday to five years and nine months in prison and fined $256,000 on fraud charges over the use of the headquarters of Apple Daily, a now-closed newspaper that he founded.

Lai, 75, is a high-profile target of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to silence its critics in Hong Kong. He has been in detention since December 2020, and had been arrested several times, including over his participation in pro-democracy protests.

He is also awaiting trial for alleged violations of the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020 and faces a possible life sentence. The law seeks to eradicate dissent in Hong Kong by curtailing rights, including free speech.

Lai was found guilty on two counts of fraud in October, including breaching the conditions of the lease on the office of Apple Daily. Judge Stanley Chan said in his judgment Saturday that he had opted for a heavier sentence because of the serious nature of the charges. He added that the nature of the case is “purely a simple fraud case” and the trial should “not be labeled as political.”

Lai’s upcoming trial on national security charges, where he faces allegations of conspiring and colluding with foreign countries, and a sedition offense, also has been steeped in controversy.

Lai intended to engage a prominent British lawyer who specializes in criminal law and human rights to represent him — only to encounter opposition from the Hong Kong government, which argued that foreign lawyers should not be able to argue in a case involving national security legislation. Hong Kong’s top court ruled against the government — prompting Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, to ask Beijing to intervene by interpreting the security law.

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Since Hong Kong was handed from British to Chinese rule in 1997, there has been growing concern about the city’s judicial independence.

If Beijing steps in, it will be another blow to procedural rights for defendants under the national security law, said Thomas Kellogg, the executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University.

“We’ve seen in a number of cases, including Jimmy Lai’s case, of people being denied their right to bail,” he said, adding that Hong Kong’s policy of allowing only designated judges to rule in national security law cases “further compromises their overall right to a fair trial.”

Maya Wang, the associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, urged the authorities to drop the case against Lai and “free him immediately.”

“Beijing’s elaborate criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a vendetta against a leading proponent of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong,” Wang said.

Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesman, in an earlier statement condemned the verdict in Lai’s fraud case, describing the charges as “spurious.”

“Efforts to stifle press freedom and restrict the free flow of information undermine Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and hurt Hong Kong’s credibility as a business and financial hub,” Price added.

Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper shut down last year after police raided its newsroom and arrested six senior staffers. In November, the former employees pleaded guilty to a charge of collusion with foreign forces.