Great Britain

Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy figure Jimmy Lai charged with fraud

Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist whose Apple Daily newspaper was raided by police earlier this year, has been denied bail after being charged with fraud. Lai – the owner of Hong Kong tabloid and founder of Next Digital Media – will be held on remand until his next court date in April next year.

Lai has been one of the loudest pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong, amid a worsening crackdown on dissent. On Wednesday Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam were jailed for their activism.

Lai and two Next Digital Media executives were charged on Wednesday night when making a regular reporting appearance to police over their previous arrests under the national security law. The executives, chief operating officer Royston Chow Tat-kuen, and chief administrative officer Wong Wai-keung, were released on bail on Thursday.

The trio are accused of breaching land-lease terms by misusing Next Digital’s office space in Tseung Kwan O for other purposes.

Lai was among more than 10 people arrested on one day in August, under suspicion of breaching the national security law imposed by Beijing in June. Apple Daily’s newsroom was also raided by hundreds of police. Lai was suspected of collusion with foreign forces and conspiracy to commit fraud, but police have not laid charges of foreign collusion.

Speaking after the arrest, Lai said the accusations were “trumped up” but he couldn’t go into details because legal proceedings were underway.

At least 31 people have been arrested under the national security law, which has been internationally condemned as overly broad and undefined, criminalising benign acts of protest. Hong Kong authorities have been accused of using the national security and other laws to crackdown on dissent and free speech. In an editorial on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal said the charge against Lai was China sending a clear message that it would crush any opposition, and that “any charges will do”.

More than 10,000 people have also been arrested under other laws, over acts related to the mass protests.

Some have fled. Activist Nathan Law left Hong Kong for the UK, and Andy Li, who was also arrested under the national security law, is among those detained on the mainland after being caught trying to escape to Taiwan by boat. On Wednesday, Hong Kong media reported that pro-democracy former legislator Ted Hui and his family had moved to Denmark. Hui was arrested in August over his involvement in a 2019 protest.

On Wednesday Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam, were all jailed for their part in an unauthorised demonstration outside police headquarters in June 2019. Wong was sentenced to 13-and-a-half months, Chow to 10, and Lam to seven. All three had pleaded guilty to the non-violent acts of organising, inciting, or participating in the protest but the judge said jail time was required to deter others.

There are fears the high-profile pro-democracy activists will spend far longer in jail than the sentences delivered on Wednesday. Chow, who turned 24 on Thursday, was also arrested under the national security law on the same day as Lai, but has not been charged so far. Wong is facing potential charges over a Tiananmen Square massacre vigil, and an October 2019 protest.

The jail terms drew international rebuke, including from the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and US Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

“We are disturbed by the prospect of China pressing additional charges against these activists, which could result in additional years of jail time,” said Pelosi, who added the US congress was “seriously concerned” about allegations that Wong was mistreated in prison, including several days in solitary confinement.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said the trio “represent the collective will of the people of Hong Kong for democracy”.

“It is very regrettable that the judgment of Hong Kong people has once again been suppressed by the authority,” Tsai said.

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