A Hong Kong court on Saturday sentenced media mogul Jimmy Lai to five years and nine months in prison in the latest lawsuit against the pro-democracy tycoon on fraud charges.
Lai was found to have breached the lease terms for the headquarters of his now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper after he concealed the operation of a consulting firm that provided secretarial services to private companies controlled by Lai.
Along with the prison sentence, Lai was also fined HK$2 million (US$257,000) and disqualified from serving as a company director for eight years.
Wong Wai Keung, administrative director of Apple Daily’s parent company, Next Digital, and a co-defendant, was sentenced to 21 months in prison.
In October, Lai and Wong were both convicted of fraud by the same court. Both pleaded not guilty.
Lai, who has been in pre-trial detention for nearly two years, also faces a trial under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law.
Authorities have cracked down on dissent since Beijing’s 2020 Security Law was imposed in response to massive anti-government protests.
Activists, protesters and journalists have been jailed, civil society has been paralyzed and a number of independent news outlets have been shut down.
Lai, 74, is one of Beijing’s most high-profile critics, charged under the law and facing a life sentence on charges of collaborating with foreign forces. He also faces charges under a colonial-era sedition law and was sentenced to 13 months in prison in 2021 for taking part in an unauthorized protest.
His pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily was among newspapers to shut down since the law was implemented after police raided its offices and authorities froze its assets.
Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly dismissed criticism that the law had stifled freedoms, instead claiming it restored order to the city after the 2019 protests.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997, continues to use the common law system inherited from Britain.
Its independent judiciary and rule of law have long been seen as key to the city’s success as a global financial hub – although many legal experts have raised concerns since the Safety Act was introduced, including two British judges who resigned earlier this year, saying the city was “constrained by values of the deviated from political freedom”.
The city’s legal system typically allows foreign judges to sit in the city’s courts, and attorneys from other common law jurisdictions may work on cases where their expertise is needed.
However, cases under the National Security Law are handled by a special branch of Hong Kong Police and designated national security judges, raising concerns about Beijing’s potential influence on the proceedings.
Lai was also at the center of this debate. In November, Hong Kong’s highest court upheld a ruling allowing a British lawyer 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.