Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai received a fresh jail sentence of five years and nine months on Saturday after being found guilty of fraud in a contractual dispute.
Lai, the 75-year-old founder of the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper, had recently completed a 20-month jail term resulting from multiple convictions for his part in protests and unauthorised assemblies.
He also faces a possible life sentence at his upcoming trial on national security charges.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price called the sentence “grossly unjust” and once again called on Beijing to “respect freedom of expression, including for the press, in Hong Kong”.
While the earlier convictions were related to Lai’s role in the huge democracy protests that swept Hong Kong in 2019, the latest case involved one of his companies violating the terms of the lease on his newspaper’s offices.
Lai and former Apple Daily executive Wong Wai-keung were both found guilty of fraud in October in what District Judge Stanley Chan described as a “planned, organised and years-long” scheme.
Prosecutors said that a consultancy firm Lai operated for his personal use had taken up office space that Apple Daily had rented for the purposes of publication and printing.
This was in breach of the terms of the lease Apple Daily signed with a government company and amounted to fraud, prosecutors said.
Defence lawyers previously argued the case should have been a civil suit instead of a criminal prosecution, adding that the square footage involved was minimal.
In addition to his jail term, Lai was fined HK$2 million ($257,000) and banned from managing companies for eight years.
Co-defendant Wong, 61, was jailed for 21 months, with the judge comparing him to “the getaway driver for a robbery”.
The judge said the sentence was in response to a “simple case of fraud”, which dated back to the 1990s when the lease first came into effect.
He criticised Apple Daily for abusing its reputation as a well-known media company as a “protective shield”, which he claimed discouraged the landlord from taking action against the breach of lease terms.
But he said the case had nothing to do with politics or press freedom.
“Don’t draw any connection to politics,” Chan said.
One of Hong Kong’s best-known pro-democracy activists, Lai has long been openly loathed by Beijing.
For years, Apple Daily was scathing in its criticism of China’s Communist Party and openly supportive of democracy.
It collapsed last year after its funds were frozen and many of its senior staff were charged alongside Lai under the sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong — primarily over their campaign for international sanctions against China.