Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying has an “arguable” case against a charge of breaking the national security law, a High Court judge has said in explaining why he granted the founder of the Apple Daily tabloid HK$10 million (US$1.29 million) bail last week.
Lai is the first person granted bail after being charged with violating the security law, and state media has sharply criticised the decision, warning that mainland Chinese authorities could take over the case.
But in laying out his reasons, Justice Alex Lee Wan-tang said Lai’s defence had merits and the high threshold for granting bail under the new law could be met by imposing stringent conditions on the defendant. These included placing him under house arrest and banning him from meeting foreign officials, taking media interviews or posting on social media.
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Lee also said he was satisfied Lai would not flee, noting the 73-year-old had been prepared for police to monitor his movements at all times following his release, although the court deemed the measure unnecessary.
The High Court released Lai on bail on December 23 after he served 20 days in custody, ordering him to be placed under house arrest at his Kadoorie Avenue mansion in Ho Man Tin. The prosecution will appeal the decision on New Year’s Eve.
Lee’s decision drew a strong backlash from Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, which said the step had “severely hurt Hong Kong’s rule of law”.
The central government had “sufficient legal grounds” to assume jurisdiction of Lai’s case, as allowed under the national security law, and order him sent to the mainland to stand trial, it said in a commentary published online on Sunday.
Judges usually deliver explanations of bail decisions verbally in court, but the judiciary took the rare step of uploading Lee’s 19-page written judgment onto its website.
In arguing against the bail request, prosecutors cited the gravity of Lai’s alleged offences, the flight risk he posed and chances of reoffending.
Anthony Chau Tin-hang, for the prosecution, pointed to media commentaries Lai gave between July and August that allegedly proved his collusion with foreign forces by requesting foreign governments to impose sanctions on the mainland and Hong Kong. The contents of the articles were not disclosed in Tuesday’s ruling.
But the judge questioned the allegation, saying the purported requests could be seen as well as mere personal opinion.
“The statements in question on their face appear to be comments and criticisms rather than requests, albeit one might find those views disagreeable or even offensive,” Lee said. “The strength of the evidence may change and it may be that the evidence would become stronger in the future. For the present purpose, however, the defence’s stance is on its face arguable.”
The same went for the fraud charge related to Next Digital’s office space in Tseung Kwan O, the judge said. The prosecution currently lacked evidence to prove Lai and two co-defendants accused of the financial crime had intended to deceive the landlord when they subleased the space to another firm.
Although the risk of absconding could not be ruled out, Lee said he was satisfied with the stringent bail conditions, which would prevent Lai from committing any further offences – a factor particularly important when considering bail in national security cases.
Police arrested Lai and the two senior Next Digital executives on August 10. The three were taken into custody after reporting to police on December 2 and charged with fraud in West Kowloon Court the next day. The two executives were granted bail while Lai’s request was denied. His application was similarly dismissed one week later when prosecutors charged him under the national security law, before the High Court granted him bail last Wednesday.
The prosecution will apply for permission to appeal against Lee’s decision at the Court of Final Appeal on Thursday. The hearing will be presided over by Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, who is set to retire on January 11, and judges Roberto Ribeiro and Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, who will succeed Ma.
Lee also explained his decision to deny bail two weeks ago to a former food delivery worker, who was charged with inciting secession after allegedly chanting pro-independence slogans.
The judge said Adam Ma Chun-man, 30, was likely to commit further offences should he be granted bail, especially after he openly stated he would engage in similar acts again even if he were jailed.
The judge found the defendant’s chanting of slogans, including “All people be valiant” and “Armed revolt”, was “apparently not a peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression or a mere publicity”.
However, the judge said Ma might consider launching a second bail review should the prosecution fail to fix a trial date before mid-April.
This article Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has arguable case and bail conditions were met, High Court judge says first appeared on South China Morning Post