Jimmy Lai, Hong Kong’s most prominent Beijing critic and pro-democracy media tycoon, was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on Saturday over fraud charges for violating a lease contract.
The sentence is the latest in a series of cases against the 75-year-old founder of the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper.
Lai was arrested during a crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in 2019 and had multiple charges levelled against him, including under the draconian National Security Law. The high-profile Beijing critic has been behind bars since December 2020 and has already served 20 months for unauthorised assemblies.
Lai was found guilty of two counts of fraud for the “deliberate concealment” of operations of a private company at the headquarters of his now-defunct newspaper.
District court judge Stanley Chan issued an order preventing Lai from being the director of any company for eight years and imposed a fine of £212,000. Judge Chan warned that a failure to settle the fine would result in an additional year of jail time.
Lai’s former colleague Wong Wai-keung, 61, who was a chief administrative officer at the paper’s parent company Next Digital, was sentenced to 21 months in jail.
The duo were found guilty of subletting part of the office space to a secretarial firm, which was also controlled by him, between 2016 and 2020. The second count of fraud was for allowing the same firm to use the media outlet’s office space in an alleged breach of lease agreements from 1998 to 2015.
The court ruled that Lai violated the terms of the lease of the newspaper’s headquarters by concealing the operations of Dico Consultants Limited (Dico) from the landlord – Hong Kong Science and Technology Park Corporation.
Lai had reportedly told a probation officer he should not have been held liable for Next Digital’s contractual breaches and blamed his then chief operating officer Royston Chow Tat-kuen. Chow was granted immunity after he agreed to help in the case against his former boss.
Judge Chan, in the judgment on Saturday, said that the violations, which he called “organised and planned”, took place over the period of two decades and said Lai "acted under the protective umbrella of a media organisation”.
Lai did not feel guilty about the moves, so there was no basis for the court to reduce his jail term, the judge said.
Judge Chan insisted that this prosecution of a media tycoon “wasn't equivalent to an attack on press freedom”.
Lai was originally sentenced to six years in prison but had three months deducted for acknowledging much of the prosecution’s case and saving court resources. His lawyer, Derek Chan, had urged the judge to consider Lai’s age and contributions to the media industry.
“Beijing’s elaborate criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a vendetta against a leading proponent of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, an Asia director with the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Lai’s national security trial is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.