Jimmy Lai, a fierce critic of the Chinese communist regime, has been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on two counts of fraud, Reuters reported on December 10th. Hong Kong authorities have also fined the billionaire media mogul about €250,000 for allegedly having violated the lease contract of one of his companies.
According to the prosecution, Lai had unlawfully reserved a part of an office complex meant to house his now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily for his consultancy firm, Dico Consultants Ltd.
Prosecutors said that the property, which is located on land owned by the government, could only be used for “publishing and printing” and that prior approval needed to be obtained before any other activity could take place there.
Lai’s defense said only 0.16% of that space had been used for the consultancy firm—in other words, a technicality that has been used to compromise Lai for political reasons.
Lai was the head of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily that shut down after a June 2021 police raid. Along with Lai, another Next Digital executive, Wong Wai-keung, was found guilty of the same crime and jailed for 21 months.
In his judgment, District Court Judge Stanley Chan wrote that Lai had “acted under the protective umbrella of a media organization,” and that the trial “was not equivalent to an attack on press freedom.”
Under the 75-year-old Lai’s aegis, Apple Daily garnered a reputation for its frequent denunciations of China’s civil rights violations within the former British colony (which was returned to China’s rule in 1997).
Since December 2020, Lai has been spending time behind bars for having attended a commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Moreover, charges are still pending against him over having violated the Chinese national security law, which was introduced in Hong Kong in 2020 to crack down on dissidents. Formally, Lai is suspected of collusion with foreign powers.
If convicted of the latter infraction, Lai could face a life sentence. This trial was supposed to begin on December 1st but was postponed over Lai’s request to use a British lawyer. For national security reasons, Hong Kong refused to allow this. An official decision from Beijing on the matter is yet to follow, while the trial is now scheduled to start on Wednesday, December 14th.
On Sunday, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department Ned Price tweeted in response to Lai’s predicament:
The United States condemns the grossly unjust outcome of Jimmy Lai’s latest trial sentencing. By any objective measure, this result is neither fair nor just. We once again call on PRC [People’s Republic of China] authorities to respect freedom of expression, including for the press, in Hong Kong.
A response from Chinese officials, the dismissive tenor of which is by now expected, quickly followed. On Sunday, the Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong released its statement, which read:
We urge external forces to refrain from interfering in the judiciary of the SAR [Special Administrative Region] and in any other Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.
A spokesperson added that the U.S. often claims to stand up for fairness, justice, and the rule of law, but repeatedly sugarcoats criminals as “human rights pioneers,” smears the fair trial of HKSAR courts, and supports anti-China forces in Hong Kong.
Following Lai’s sentencing, which happened to occur on Human Rights Day, his son Sebastien urged the UK to take action, given that his father has been a British national since 1996. “My dad is a British citizen who has done nothing wrong. I call on the UK Government to take urgent action to protect my dad immediately and secure his freedom. The UK must do all it can to stop this, and do it now,” he urged in a statement released by Lai’s legal team.
That team’s head, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, voiced her astonishment over them having heard “more about this spurious fraud conviction from the U.S. Government than Mr Lai’s own government. We ask the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to treat this case with the urgency it deserves and to speak out in support of its citizen.”
While he did find time in his schedule to tweet his support for the British soccer team that day and for Ukraine the next, British PM Rishi Sunak appeared not to heed the call.
Meanwhile, both the UK’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and its Ambassador for Human Rights Rita French released the same promotional video to highlight Human Rights Day; a separate comment on Lai’s case, however, remains non-existent.
With Lai’s thus far successful takedown, which neither silence nor toothless rhetoric will do anything to prevent, the Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to relent now or, indeed, in the future.