Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai sentenced to five years in prison on fraud charges

HONG KONG, Dec 10 (Reuters) – Pro-democracy Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai was sentenced on Saturday to five years and nine months in prison for fraud after pleading guilty to breaching a lease at the headquarters of a liberal newspaper he ran.

Lai, 75, was found guilty of two counts of fraud to cover up the operations of a private company, Dico Consultants Ltd, at the headquarters of the now-closed Apple Daily newspaper, which was said to be in breach of a ground lease.

Lai’s conviction drew condemnation from the US.

China’s most prominent critic in Hong Kong, Lai, has been behind bars since December 2020 and has served 20 months for unauthorized meetings.

He was head 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 sentenced to 21 months in prison.

District Court Judge Stanley Chan wrote in a ruling that Lai was “acting under the protective umbrella of a media organization.” Chan said this prosecution of a media mogul “is not equivalent to an attack on freedom of the press.”

The judge deducted three months from his sentence because Lai had admitted much of the prosecution’s case.

Western governments, including the United States, have expressed concern about Lai’s plight and condemned what they call a broader deterioration in the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms under the China-imposed National Security Law.

“The United States condemns the grossly unjust outcome of Jimmy Lai’s latest conviction,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

“By any objective measure, this result is neither fair nor just.” We again call on the PRC authorities to respect freedom of expression, including of the press, in Hong Kong,” he added.

Calling for Lai’s release, Maya Wang, Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said: “Beijing’s complex criminal case against Jimmy Lai is vendetta against a leading defender of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong.”

Prosecutors said that under the terms of the newspaper’s lease on a parcel of state 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 barring Lai from becoming a director of any company for eight years and fined him HK$2 million ($260,000).

Lai’s lawyer, Derek Chan, urged the judge to take into account Lai’s age and contribution to Hong Kong’s media industry.

A separate, high-profile national security trial involving Lai is scheduled to resume on Tuesday. It was delayed until Beijing decided on the contentious question of whether foreign lawyersincluding Lai’s British lawyer Timothy Owen, should be allowed to work on national security cases.

($1 = HK$7.7854)

Reporting by Jesse Pang and James Pomfret; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnik in Washington; Editing by William Mallard and Daniel Wallis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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