In the most recent legal battle against the pro-democracy tycoon, a Hong Kong court on Saturday sentenced jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai to five years and nine months in prison for fraud. After concealing the functioning of a consultancy that offered corporate secretarial services to private enterprises Lai controlled, it was discovered that Lai had violated the terms of the lease for the building housing the headquarters of his now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper.
Lai received a prison sentence, a 2 million Hong Kong dollars ($257,000) fine, and an eight-year ban from serving as a director of a corporation. Wong Wai Keung, a co-defendant and the director of administration for Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, received a 21-month prison term.
The same court found Lai and Wong guilty of fraud in October. Both made a not-guilty plea. Lai, who has been held in detention for nearly two years, will also go on trial by Hong Kong’s comprehensive national security statute.
Beijing enacted the security law in 2020 in reaction to significant anti-government demonstrations, and since then, authorities have cracked down on dissent. Several independent news outlets have closed, civil society has been weakened, and activists, protestors, and journalists have been imprisoned. Lai, 74, is one of the most well-known Beijing opponents who has been tried under the law.
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He is accused of conspiring with foreign forces and faces a maximum penalty of life in jail. He was given a 13-month prison sentence in 2021 for taking part in an unlicensed rally and is also facing one accusation under a sedition law from the colonial era. The Hong Kong administration has consistently refuted claims that the law has restricted freedoms, insisting that it has instead brought the city back into order following the 2019 protests.
National security law
The common law system that Hong Kong, a former British colony that was given to Chinese authority in 1997, received from Britain, is still in use today. Although many legal experts have expressed concerns since the introduction of the security law, including two British judges who resigned earlier this year, saying the city had “departed from values of political freedom,” the city’s independent judiciary and rule of law have long been seen as essential to the city’s success as a global financial center.
The city’s legal system frequently permits foreign judges to preside over cases in its courts, and attorneys from other common law jurisdictions are welcome to participate in matters that call for their experience. It raises questions about Beijing’s potential influence on proceedings as cases under the national security law are instead handled by a special arm of the Hong Kong police and authorized national security judges.
Lai has also been the subject of much discussion. The ruling allowing a British attorney to represent the tycoon in his national security case was affirmed by Hong Kong’s top court in November. John Lee, the city’s chief executive, has subsequently declared that he will contact Beijing to ascertain whether international attorneys may take matters involving national security.