Hong Kong – A Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist will have to return to prison after a court suspends bail in a case that has fuelled tensions between Beijing and the city’s legal system.
Prosecutors asked for an emergency hearing after a court in Hong Kong ruled on the
accused of fraud and national security violations, will be released on bail for $1.29 million. He was arrested last week and placed under house arrest. He was the first accused to be released on bail under the new National Security Act.
The Metropolitan Superior Court ruled on Thursday that he must return to prison until the 1st. A revision of the bail threshold under the new law will be carried out by a three-judge appeal chamber on 1 February.
This case is being followed closely by Beijing. On Saturday, the People’s Daily, regarded as the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, described the decision on bail as incredible, commenting that the conditions for bail were disproportionate to the damage that Mr Lai, whom he described as infamous and extremely dangerous, could inflict on national security.
Mr. Lai, who appeared at Thursday’s hearing with a Bible and surrounded by journalists, is a leading Hong Kong entrepreneur who founded a successful clothing brand before launching Apple Daily, a newspaper that openly criticized the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong pro-Peking personalities. He regularly took part in pro-democracy demonstrations in the city, sometimes leading the marches.
In court on Thursday, prosecutors argued that the National Security Act contains a bail scheme and that the public cannot afford to release the accused because the crimes covered by the law are as serious as treason and murder. The Hong Kong Court of Appeal has ruled that the judge may have made a mistake in his decision to grant bail, and a future hearing will decide how to proceed with Lai’s bail under the National Security Act.
The court remained silent while the judge read the verdict. Mr. Lai remained calm and shook hands with one of the supporters while the other in Cantonese Add Oil! shouted a popular supporter slogan.
In recent months, the People’s Daily and other Chinese state media have been increasingly critical of Hong Kong’s legal system, suggesting that Beijing may still decide to intervene. In a comment published on Saturday, the newspaper said there might be grounds to invoke a provision in the National Security Act that would allow the central government to exercise jurisdiction over certain cases and transfer the suspects to the mainland for trial.
This law, imposed by Beijing after massive pro-democracy protests that temporarily paralysed the city in 2019, gives the authorities the power to prosecute people for conspiracy, separatism and sedition. The newspaper’s comment also mentions the case of a student who was accused of rioting and then went into hiding: Aren’t those painful lessons enough to wake you up?
Jimmy Lai is an important pawn for some external forces and has a great anti-China value – external forces have a motive to facilitate his escape from Hong Kong, according to the newspaper. Who will be held responsible if he escapes or continues to harm Hong Kong until he is released on bail?
Hong Kong courts have long been commended for their independence, which contributes in part to the city’s status as an international business and financial centre. Based on the principles of common law and the legacy of the British colonial past, the courts are seen as one of the last acts against the increasingly assertive domination of Beijing.
This case marks a turning point in the development of the National Security Act and a crisis for Hong Kong’s judiciary, said Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and a Chinese legal authority who worked in Hong Kong, adding that Saturday’s article was a clear attempt to exert public pressure on Hong Kong’s independent judiciary.
In recent months, Hong Kong courts have acquitted the defendants in connection with last year’s protests, as judges have questioned the evidence in these cases. At the same time, there are signs that pressure on the courts has increased since the entry into force of the national security laws. Judges who made some decisions in favor of the activists have been transferred, while others have been criticized by local pro-Chinese politicians and the Chinese state media.
Supreme Court Judge Alex Lee Wan-tang, in his bail decision last Tuesday, argued that Mr. Wan’s bail was in violation of the law. Lai had a disputed case and that the high threshold for bail under the National Security Act could be met by imposing strict conditions. Mr Lee stated that he had considered the prosecutor’s arguments, including the fact that Mr Lai had two pleasure boats which he could use to escape, but that he had accepted the unusually strict bail conditions proposed by Mr Lai’s lawyers to limit the risk of his escape.
As part of the bail conditions, Mr. Lai had to stay in his apartment unless he went to the police several times a week. Bail was set at HK$10 million, or $1.29 million. Mr Laaj has not been authorised to meet foreign officials, make public statements, give interviews or publish information on social media.
Local media reported that police stations were regularly installed around Mr. Lai’s house to check incoming and outgoing vehicles.
In August, Mr. Lai was arrested along with nine other people and later he was suspected of breaking the law. Earlier this month, he was accused of conspiracy with a foreign state or external elements to endanger national security, for which, according to the new law, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
The evidence in the case against Mr. Lai includes the messages he posted at
since July 1 after the entry into force of the National Security Act, as well as video interviews in which he allegedly called for U.S. sanctions against Hong Kong, the prosecutor said at a hearing on July 11. December.
After the introduction of the law, Mr Lai continued to speak out on what he saw as a threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms, including in videos regularly filmed with overseas visitors. He also began using Twitter more regularly in the months leading up to his incarceration, although his account was apparently deleted after his release on bail.
Subsequently, Digital Ltd, the publisher of the Apple Daily, said Tuesday that Lai had resigned as president and general manager to spend more time on his personal affairs.
-Wenxin Feng contributed to this article.
Email Natasha Khan at [email protected].
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