Jimmy Lai, founder of the pro-democracy and now defunct Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily, has been sentenced to five years and nine months in jail, after being convicted for fraud.
In October, Lai was found guilty of violating lease terms on two counts. First, for subletting part of the Apple Daily office space to a secretarial firm, which was also controlled by him, between 2016 and 2022. Second, for letting the same firm use the office headquarters between 1998 and 2015.
In Saturday's ruling, Judge Stanley Chan said that Lai did not feel guilty about his actions. Chan also sentenced Lai's colleague Wong Wai-keung to 21 months in prison for one charge of fraud.
Lai's legal team has previously urged the United Nations and United States to investigate his imprisonment as "legal harassment" for speaking out against the Beijing government.
The 75-year-old only recently completed a 20-month term in prison for his part in protests and unauthorised assemblies. He is now awaiting another trial on national security. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment.
Lai was arrested in 2019 as part of a crackdown against Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement under the National Security Law imposed by Beijing. This came after Apple Daily doubled down on its criticism of the Chinese government during the nationwide and violent protests of 2019.
Apple Daily was forced to close down in 2021 after the arrests of its top executives and journalists. Six of them — Publisher Cheung Kim-hung, associated publisher Chan Pui-man, Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law, Executive Editor-in-Chief Lam Man-chung, and editorial writers Fung Wai-kong and Yeung Ching-kee — pleaded guilty to foreign collusion in November to avoid sedition charges.
Hong Kong's press freedom has deteriorated steadily in the last two decades, its global ranking in press freedom dropping from 18th position in 2002 to 148th position in 2022, according to Reporters Without Borders. It fell 50 places just in the last year.
Since its introduction in 2020, the national security law has been used by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing officials to silence dissent. Several news outlets have faced charges and an estimated 1,000 journalists have been fired, according to a Bloomberg report.
Call for release
In a statement published a few hours after Saturday's judgment, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called out the Chinese government's motives.
"Illegal demonstration, fraud, national security crimes—the diversity of the charges held against Jimmy Lai, and the staggering severity of the sentences imposed on him, show how desperate the Chinese regime is to silence this symbolic figure of press freedom in Hong Kong," said Cedric Alviani, East Asia Bureau Head at RSF.
Alvani urged the international community to increase pressure on Beijing and the Hong Kong government to secure Lai’s release alongside all other journalists.
mk/ar, wd (AP, AFP)