Pro-democracy Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai (黎智英) was yesterday sentenced to five years and nine months in prison for fraud, convicted of contravening a lease contract for the headquarters of a newspaper he used to run.
Lai, 75, was found guilty of two counts of fraud for covering up the operations of a private company, Dico Consultants Ltd (力高顧問有限公司), at the headquarters of the now shuttered Apple Daily newspaper, in what was ruled a breach of its land lease.
Hong Kong’s most prominent China critic, Lai has been behind bars since December 2020 and has served 20 months for unauthorized assemblies.
He was the head of Next Digital Ltd (壹傳媒集團), the parent company of Apple Daily, which shut down in June last year after a police raid.
Another Next Digital executive, Wong Wai-keung (黃偉強), 61, was found guilty of fraud and jailed for 21 months.
Handing down the sentences, District Court Judge Stanley Chan (陳廣池) said the contraventions, which he called “organized and planned,” occurred over two decades and that Lai had used his media organization as “an umbrella of protection.”
Lai did not feel guilty about the moves, so there was no basis for the court to reduce his jail term, he said, adding that the prosecution of a media tycoon “wasn’t equivalent to an attack on press freedom.”
The judge deducted three months from Lai’s sentence as he had acknowledged much of the prosecution’s case.
Western governments, including the US, have expressed concern about Lai’s plight and condemned what they call a broader deterioration in protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms in hong Kong under the China-imposed National Security Law.
“Beijing’s elaborate criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a vendetta against a leading proponent of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang (王松蓮), an associate director at Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, which called for Lai’s release.
Prosecutors said that under the newspaper’s lease conditions on a plot of government land in a science park, the property could only be used for “publishing and printing” without prior approval from the operator.
Chan issued an order preventing Lai from becoming a director of any company for eight years and fined him HK$2 million (US$256,870).
A separate, landmark national security trial involving Lai is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by AP
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