Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy Hong Kong media mogul, was sentenced to more than five years in prison on Saturday for fraud, a sentence human rights activists denounced as the latest blow to freedom of expression in the city.
Mr Lai, 75, was convicted on Saturday by County Court Judge Stanley Chan of double fraud for violating the terms of a lease related to Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper he founded and coerced into doing so closed 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 offense.
Mr Lai’s five-year and nine-month sentence – which human rights activists said was disproportionately harsh for a treaty dispute – was another sign of the dwindling space for dissent and freedom of expression in Hong Kong. As a former British colony, in the terms of its handover to China in 1997, it was promised protection of individual rights for 50 years under an agreement 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 terrified the city and led to prison terms for several prominent pro-democracy activists.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Dennis Kwok, a former pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmaker and senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, who questioned the case’s portrayal as fraud rather than a civil litigation. “This is clearly a political persecution.”
Mr Lai is one of the most prominent pro-democracy figures targeted by Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong after it was rocked by a wave of anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020. The authorities have arrested opposition figures, forced news outlets to close and arrested and detained protesters and activists.
Mr. Lai was charged in late 2020 for renting offices at Next Digital’s headquarters to his own consulting firm, Dico Consultants, in breach of the lease agreement. (The lease stipulated that the building would be used for news purposes only.) Pro-democracy activists and experts said the case appears to involve a minor offense that would not normally result in a prison sentence. Mr. Lai’s consulting firm occupied only 0.16 percent of the entire office complex.
But Judge Chan, during the sentencing hearing, called the tiny percentage irrelevant to the seriousness of the case. He pointed to the intangible benefits of the regime and the need for strong deterrence to justify a severe sentence.
Mr Kwok, the former pro-democracy lawmaker, said it was unusual for a fraud case of this type to be handled by prosecutors and a judge who worked primarily on national security cases. “Under normal circumstances, it would only result in a fine or damages,” he said.
Mr. Lai is still awaiting trial on charges filed 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 attending an annual vigil to commemorate victims of the crackdown on a 1989 peaceful Tiananmen Square protest. Seven other pro-democracy activists were also convicted and sentenced in that case.
Against this background, Mr. Lai’s sentencing on Saturday came as no surprise. For years, Chinese state news media and politicians have accused him of being a “black hand” conspiring with foreign powers, and some have openly called for his punishment.
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University, said much of China’s fears over the Hong Kong protests have been projected onto Mr Lai.
“They blamed him for so much of what’s happening in Hong Kong,” said Professor Hui, a Hong Kong native who has written extensively on the city’s pro-democracy movement and Beijing’s crackdown. “They’re just going to do whatever it takes to make sure he gets whatever punishment they want him to get.”
Ted Hui, a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, said the indictments show how China’s ruling Communist Party is taking a “comprehensive approach” to silencing its critics. Mr Lai’s verdict on fraud allegations, he predicted, would be a prelude to further crackdowns on Hong Kong’s remaining independent media.
“If they can use a highly technical case related to a land contract, the regime can easily find another technical point related to other media organizations,” said Mr. Hui. “They can copy the model and follow other organizations.”