Pro-democracy publisher Lai found guilty on fraud charges

AP Photo /Vincent Yu, File
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai pauses during an interview in Hong Kong in July 2020.

HONG KONG (AP) — Pro-democracy Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai was found guilty Tuesday on a pair of fraud charges related to lease violations — the latest of a series of prosecutions apparently aimed at punishing him for his past activism.

Lai had been arrested during a crackdown on the pro-democracy movement following widespread protests in 2019 under the city’s sweeping Beijing-imposed National Security Law. He is already serving a 20-month sentence for his role in unauthorized assemblies.

His media company Next Digital had published the now-shuttered Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s last surviving pro-democracy newspaper.

Lai also faces collusion charges under the National Security Law and a separate sedition charge. His ex-colleague Wong Wai-keung was also convicted Tuesday on a single charge of fraud.

Lai and two former executives at his company were charged with fraud for subletting part of the office space to a secretarial firm, which was also controlled by Lai, between 2016 and 2020. Their move was said to have violated the lease agreements with the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation. The second fraud count was for letting the same firm use the media outlet’s office space in breach of lease agreements between 1998 and 2015.

Judge Stanley Chan Kwong-chi at the District Court said the nature of the firm did not conform with what was stipulated in the lease agreements, and ruled that Lai had hidden the fact the company was occupying space in the building. He said he did not believe Lai had forgotten the business was using the office.

One of the executives, Royston Chow, made a deal earlier this year to help with Lai’s and Wong’s prosecution in exchange for exemption from criminal liability.

Lawyers for Hong Kong media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai are asking the United Nations to investigate his imprisonment and multiple criminal charges as “legal harassment” to punish him for speaking out.

Armed with the National Security Law, prosecutors have brought cases against people for clapping in court, sentenced five speech therapists to nearly two years in prison for their role in the publication of children’s books deemed seditious, and put on trial a 90-year-old Catholic cardinal and five others accused of failing to register a now-defunct fund set up to assist people arrested in the mass anti-government protests three years ago.

That has severely damaged faith in the future of the bustling bastion of finance, with increasing numbers of young professionals responding to the ever-shrinking freedoms by moving abroad.

Electoral reforms have ensured that only those deemed to be “patriots” by Beijing serve in the city’s legislature. China has installed John Lee, a career security official, as the city’s new chief executive.