A Hong Kong court on Saturday sentenced jailed 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 lease for the headquarters of his now defunct Apple Daily newspaper after concealing the operation of a consultancy that provided corporate secretarial services to private firms Lai controlled.
Along with the jail sentence, Lai was also fined 2 million Hong Kong dollars ($257,000) and disqualified as a company director for eight years.
Wong Wai Keung, the director of administration of Apple Daily’s parent company Next Digital and a co-defendant, was sentenced to 21 months in jail.
In October, Lai and Wong were both convicted of fraud by the same court. Both pleaded not guilty.
Lai, who has been remanded in custody for almost two years, is also facing a trial under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law.
Since the security law was imposed by Beijing in 2020, in response to massive anti-government protests, authorities have cracked down on dissent.
Activists, protesters and journalists have been jailed, civil society crippled, and a number of independent news outlets shuttered.
Lai, 74, is one of the most high-profile critics of Beijing charged under the law and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison on charges of colluding with foreign forces. He also faces one charge under a colonial-era sedition law, and was sentenced to 13 months in prison in 2021 for participating in an unauthorized protest.
His pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily was among the newspapers forced to shut down since the implementation of the law, after police raided the newsroom and authorities froze its assets.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied criticism that the law has stifled freedoms, claiming instead it has restored order in the city after the 2019 protests.
National security law
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.
Its independent judiciary and rule of law have long been deemed key to the city’s success as a global financial center – though many legal experts have expressed misgivings since the introduction of the security law, including two British judges who resigned earlier this year, saying the city had “departed from values of political freedom.”
The city’s legal system typically allows overseas judges in the city’s courts, and lawyers from other common law jurisdictions can work on cases where their expertise is needed.
However, cases under the national security law are handled by a dedicated branch of the Hong Kong police and designated national security judges, raising concern about Beijing’s potential influence on proceedings.
Lai has also been at the center of this debate. In November, Hong Kong’s highest court upheld a verdict to allow a British barrister to represent the tycoon in his national security case. The city’s Chief Executive John Lee has since said he will ask Beijing to determine whether foreign lawyers can work on national security cases.