Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul, was sentenced to more than five years in prison on Saturday for fraud, a punishment that human rights activists condemn as the latest blow to human rights. Freedom of speech in the city.
Lai, 75, was convicted on Saturday by Stanley Chan, a judge in the district court, on two counts of fraud for breaching the terms of a lease involving Apple Daily, a pro-newspaper. democratic household founded by him and is forced to close last year when the authorities cracked down on it. Wong Wai-keung, director of Apple Daily’s parent company, Next Digital, was sentenced to 21 months for the same offence.
Mr. Lai’s five-year, nine-month sentence — which human rights activists call too harsh for what is equivalent to a contract dispute — is another sign that there is space for dissidents. Dissent and freedom of expression in Hong Kong are shrinking. As a former British colony, in the terms of its handover to China in 1997, it was promised to protect individual rights for 50 years under a so-called one country, two systems agreement. .
Mr. Lai still faces a number of additional charges, including a broad-based charge national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing has instilled fear in the city and led to prison sentences for several prominent democracy activists.
“I have never seen anything like this,” said Dennis Kwok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School who questioned the framing of the case. The judgment is fraudulent, as opposed to a civil dispute. “This is clearly a political prosecution.”
Lai is one of the most prominent pro-democracy figures targeted by Beijing in its crackdown on Hong Kong after the city was rocked by a wave of anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020. detained opposition figures, forced the closure of news outlets and arrested and jailed protesters and activists.
Mr. Lai was charge at the end of 2020 for leasing the office of Next Digital’s headquarters to the consulting company Dico Consultants, violating the lease agreement. (The lease specifies the use of the building for reporting purposes.) Pro-democracy experts and activists said the incident appeared to involve a minor offense that would not normally be. imprisoned. Mr. Lai’s consulting firm only accounts for 0.16% of the entire office complex.
But Judge Chan, during sentencing, called that tiny percentage unimportant given the severity of the case. He pointed to the invisible benefits of the arrangement, as well as the need for a strong deterrent, as justifications for a heavy sentence.
Kwok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, said it was unusual for prosecutors and a judge who mainly worked on national security cases to handle a fraud case like this. “Under normal circumstances, it would result in fines or damages at the most,” he said.
Lai is still awaiting trial on charges filed in August 2020 as violations of sweeping national security laws and vague language that Beijing imposed on the city that year. In 2021, he has sentenced to 13 months in prison for participating in the annual vigil in memory of the victims of the 1989 crackdown on the peaceful Tiananmen Square protest. Seven other pro-democracy activists were also found guilty and convicted in the case.
Against this backdrop, Lai’s sentencing on Saturday was not surprising. For years, Chinese state media and politicians have accused him of “black hand” colluding with foreign powers, and some openly called for his punishment.
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, says that much of China’s worries about the Hong Kong protests have fallen on Mr. Lai.
Professor Hui, a native of Hong Kong who has written extensively about the city’s pro-democracy movement and Beijing’s crackdown, said: “They place a lot of blame on what’s happening in Hong Kong for what is happening in Hong Kong. he. “They’ll do whatever it takes to make sure he gets every punishment they want to put on him.”
Ted Hui, a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, said the allegations showed China’s ruling Communist Party was taking a “comprehensive approach” to silencing critics. He predicts Mr. Lai’s conviction for fraud will be a prelude to further infiltrations into what remains of Hong Kong’s independent media.
“If they can use a highly technical case involving land contracts, the regime can easily find another technical point involving other media organisations,” Hui said. “They can copy the model and persecute other organizations.”