HONG KONG (Reuters) – Pro-democracy Hong Kong businessman Jimmy Lai was sentenced on Saturday to five years and nine months in prison for fraud, and was found guilty of violating a lease on the premises of a liberal newspaper he ran.
Lai, 75, was found guilty of two counts of fraud for covering up the operations of a private company, Dico Consultants Ltd, at the now-shuttered Apple Daily headquarters, in what he was ordered to breach the land lease.
Lai’s ruling drew US condemnation.
Lai, Hong Kong’s most vocal critic of China, has been behind bars since December 2020 and spent 20 months at unauthorized gatherings.
He was the president of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily which closed in June 2021 after a police raid.
Another Next Digital executive, Wong Wai-keung, 61, was found guilty of fraud and jailed for 21 months.
District Court Judge Stanley Chan wrote in his ruling that Lai “acted under the protective umbrella of a media organisation”. Chan said the trial of a media entrepreneur “was not equated with an attack on freedom of the press.”
The judge cut three months off his sentence because Lay confessed to much of the prosecution’s case.
Western governments including the United States have expressed concern about Lai’s plight and denounced what they described as a broader deterioration in the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms under the national security law imposed by China.
“The United States condemns the flagrantly unfair outcome of the recent sentencing of Jimmy Lai,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“By any objective measure, this outcome is neither fair nor fair. We call on the PRC authorities once again to respect freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, in Hong Kong,” he added.
“Beijing’s detailed criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a vendetta against a prominent supporter of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch advocating for Lai’s release.
Prosecutors said that under the terms of the newspaper’s lease of a plot of government land in a science park, the property could only be used for “publication and printing” without prior approval from the operator.
Chan issued an order banning Lai from becoming a director of any company for eight years and fined him 2 million Hong Kong dollars ($260,000).
Lai’s lawyer, Derek Chan, urged the judge to consider Lai’s age and contributions to Hong Kong’s media industry.
A separate and important national security trial involving Lai is scheduled to resume on Tuesday. It has been delayed as Beijing decides on the contentious issue of whether foreign lawyers, including Lai’s British lawyer Timothy Owen, should be allowed to work on national security cases.
($1 = 7.7854 Hong Kong dollars)
(Reporting by Jesse Pang and James Pomfret) Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington. Editing by William Mallard and Daniel Wallis
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