Human rights advocates criticized Jimmy Lai’s Saturday fraud conviction and sentence of more than five years in jail as the latest attack on the city’s ability to express oneself freely. Jimmy Lai is a pro-democracy media entrepreneur from Hong Kong. The district court’s Stanley Chan sentenced Mr. Lai, 75, on Saturday for violating the conditions of a lease agreement for Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper he created that was forced to close last year as a result of government pressure.
For the same act, Wong Wai-keung, director of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, received a 21-month prison term. The five years and nine months Mr. Lai received in prison, which human rights advocates criticized as being too punitive for what amounted to a contractual dispute, was another indication of how little room there is in Hong Kong for dissent and free expression.
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An agreement is known as “one nation, two systems” guaranteed guarantees for individual rights for the former British colony for 50 years as part of the terms of its transfer to China in 1997. Mr. Lai is still facing a number of other accusations, including one that falls under a wide national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong that has left the city shrouded in dread and led to jail terms for a number of well-known pro-democracy campaigners.
Dennis Kwok, a former pro-democracy politician in Hong Kong and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He questioned why the case was framed as fraud rather than a civil dispute. “This prosecution is obviously political,” Following a surge of anti-government rallies in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, Beijing targeted Mr. Lai as one of the most prominent pro-democracy individuals.
The government has imprisoned opposition leaders, forced media organizations to shut down, and arrested and detained activists and protestors. In late 2020, Mr. Lai was charged with violating the terms of the lease by renting offices at the headquarters of Next Digital to his own consulting business, Dico Consultants. (The building was only to be used for news purposes, according to the lease.)
The case seemed to include a minor crime that would often not result in a prison term, according to pro-democracy campaigners and specialists. Just 0.16 percent of the complex’s offices were held by Mr. Lai’s consulting business. However, Judge Chan deemed the miniscule fraction irrelevant to the seriousness of the case at the sentencing. He cited the need for a potent deterrent as well as the arrangement’s intangible advantages as arguments for severe sentencing.
The former pro-democracy politician, Mr. Kwok, claimed that it was unusual for prosecutors and a judge who handled mostly national security issues to oversee a fraud case of this sort. According to him, “under normal conditions, it would only lead to a fine or damages.” On charges of breaking the broad and ambiguously worded national security law that Beijing imposed on the city that year, Mr. Lai is still awaiting trial as of August of this year.
He was given a 13-month prison term in 2021 for taking part in the yearly vigil held in memory of those killed during the 1989 crackdown on a peaceful demonstration at Tiananmen Square. In this instance, seven further pro-democracy activists were also found guilty and given sentences. In light of this, Mr. Lai’s sentencing on Saturday was expected. He has been accused of having a “black hand” working with foreign forces for years by state-run Chinese news media and politicians, and some have openly called for his punishment.
A lot of China’s concerns over the protests in Hong Kong, according to Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, had been projected onto Mr. Lai. According to Professor Hui, a native of Hong Kong who has written extensively about the city’s democracy movement and Beijing’s crackdown, “They’ve put so much of what’s occurring in Hong Kong on him.” They’ll do whatever it takes to make sure he receives the full amount of punishment they have in mind for him.
According to Ted Hui, a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, the accusations demonstrated how the Communist Party in power in China was using a “comprehensive approach” to repress its adversaries. He expected that Mr. Lai’s sentence on fraud-related charges would be a precursor to additional intrusions on what was left of Hong Kong’s independent media.
The dictatorship “can easily discover another technical point involving other media organizations if they can use a highly technical argument relating to a property deal,” Mr. Hui claimed. They are able to imitate the strategy and target different organizations.