A Hong Kong court on Saturday sentenced a pro-democracy media mogul to five years and nine months in prison on two charges of fraud related to lease violations, the latest in a series of cases against prominent activists who , critics say, are aimed at crushing dissent in the city.
Jimmy Lai, who was arrested in a crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy movement following widespread protests in 2019 and under Beijing’s national security law, was also fined of HK$2 million ($257,000).
His media company, Next Digital, published the now defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. The publication was forced to close following the arrest of its top executives, editors and reporters last year.
In October, Lai was found guilty of fraud for having sublet part of the office space to a secretarial company, which he also controlled, between 2016 and 2020. The second count of fraud was to letting the same company use the outlet’s office space to an alleged breach of lease agreements from 1998 to 2015.
The court then ruled that the moves violated rental agreements with the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp. and that Lai had hidden the fact that the company was taking up space in the building.
In handing down the sentences on Saturday, Judge Stanley Chan said the violations, which he called “organized and planned”, occurred over two decades and that Lai had used his media organization as “an umbrella of protection”. .
He said Lai did not feel guilty for the moves, so there was no reason for the court to reduce his jail term.
Lai’s former colleague Wong Wai-keung, who was convicted of a single fraud charge in the case, is to serve 21 months in prison, Chan added.
Lai’s legal team earlier asked the United Nations to investigate his imprisonment and multiple criminal charges of “lawful harassment” to punish him for speaking out. The tycoon had previously been sentenced to 20 months in prison for his role in unauthorized gatherings.
His national security trial, which was originally due to start on December 1, was postponed after Hong Kong leader John Lee called on China to effectively prevent him from hiring a British defense lawyer. If convicted, Lai faces life imprisonment.
The enactment of the security law led to the arrest of many prominent democracy activists in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese control in 1997.
It has also undermined confidence in the future of the international financial centre, with increasing numbers of young professionals reacting to diminishing freedoms by moving abroad.