Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media mogul from Hong Kong, was sentenced to more than five years in prison on Saturday for fraud, a sentence that rights activists have denounced as the latest blow to the freedom of expression in the city.
Mr. Lai, 75, was sentenced Saturday by District Court Judge Stanley Chan on two counts of fraud for violating the terms of a rental agreement linked to Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper that he founded and which was forced to close last year when authorities cracked down. Wong Wai-keung, director of Apple Daily’s parent company Next Digital, was sentenced to 21 months in prison for the same offence.
Mr Lai’s five-year, nine-month sentence – which rights activists have called disproportionately harsh for what amounted to a contract dispute – was a further sign of shrinking space for dissent. and freedom of expression in Hong Kong. A former British colony, it was promised in the terms of its transfer to China in 1997 individual rights protections for 50 years under an arrangement known as one country, two systems.
Mr Lai still faces several additional charges, including one under a sweeping national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing that has struck fear into the city and resulted in prison terms for several pro-democracy activists leading.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Dennis Kwok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, who questioned labeling the case a fraud, for example. opposition to civil litigation. . “This is clearly a political prosecution.”
Mr. Lai is one of the most prominent pro-democracy figures targeted in Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong after it was rocked by a wave of anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020. Authorities have arrested figures from the opposition, forced news outlets to shut down, and demonstrators and activists arrested and imprisoned.
Mr. Lai was indicted in late 2020 for renting offices at Next Digital’s headquarters to his own consulting firm, Dico Consultants, in violation of the rental agreement. (The lease designated use of the building for informational purposes only.) Pro-democracy activists and experts said the case appeared to involve a minor offense that would not normally result in jail time. Mr. Lai’s consulting firm occupied just 0.16% of the entire office complex.
But Judge Chan, at sentencing, called the small percentage insignificant in relation to the seriousness of the case. He pointed to the intangible benefits of the arrangement, as well as the need for strong deterrence, as justifications for a heavy sentence.
Mr. Kwok, the former pro-democracy lawmaker, said it was unusual for a fraud case of this nature to be handled by prosecutors and a judge who worked primarily on national security cases. “Under normal circumstances, this would result in a fine or damages at most,” he said.
Mr. Lai is still awaiting trial on charges brought in August 2020 for violating the sweeping and vaguely worded national security law that Beijing imposed on the city that year. In 2021, he was sentenced to 13 months in prison for participating in an annual vigil to commemorate the victims of the 1989 crackdown on a peaceful protest in Tiananmen Square. Seven other pro-democracy activists were also convicted and sentenced in the case.
In this context, Mr. Lai’s sentencing on Saturday was not a surprise. For years, China’s state-run news media and politicians have accused him of being a “dark minion” colluding with foreign powers, and some have openly called for him to be punished.
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, said much of China’s concerns about the Hong Kong protests had been projected onto Mr Lai.
“They blamed him so much for what’s happening in Hong Kong,” said Professor Hui, a Hong Kong native who has written extensively about the city’s democracy movement and Beijing’s crackdown. “They’re just going to do whatever it takes to make sure he gets all the punishment they want to give him.”
Ted Hui, a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, said the charges showed how China’s ruling Communist Party was taking a “comprehensive approach” to silencing its critics. Conviction of Mr. Lai for fraud, he predicted, would be a prelude to further inroads into what remained of Hong Kong’s independent media.
“If they can use a highly technical case regarding a land contract, the regime can easily find another technical point regarding other media organizations,” Hui said. “They can copy the model and persecute other organizations.”