A HONG Kong court found Jimmy Lai guilty on two counts of fraud, adding to the jailed media mogul's mounting convictions as the city cracks down on high-profile dissidents.
Lai made false statements to a landlord about certain business activities, in violation of a special-purpose lease, Judge Stanley Chan said in District Court on Tuesday (Oct 25).
The 74-year-old had pleaded not guilty to using the former headquarters of his Next Digital media company for purposes not specified in the lease. Prosecutors said that activity benefited Lai's now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, which closed last year under a pressure campaign by national security police.
Lai wore a mask when he entered the courtroom and waved to a crowd of about 30 observers. One person shouted to him, "Good Day, Mr. Lai. Take care of yourself, Mr. Lai."
Next Digital's former chief administrative officer, Wong Wai-keung, was also found guilty on one count of fraud on Tuesday. The company's one-time chief financial officer and chief operating officer Royston Chow had also faced charges, but they were dropped after he assisted prosecutors in Lai's case.
He is already serving 20 months in prison for his role in unauthorised assemblies during 2019 anti-government protests. The pro-democracy activist also faces four charges under the city's China-drafted national security law, including conspiracy to collude with foreign forces.
The former media tycoon's cases have fanned growing concern about press freedom in the once free-wheeling former British colony. Several pro-democracy media outlets closed in the wake of the security law, which has been used to jail much of the city's political opposition. Hong Kong fell 68 places year on year to No 148 in Reporters Without Borders' most recent World Press Freedom Index.
National security police have made some 218 arrests in Hong Kong, and the government has sought to prosecute at least 114 people.
Only two defendants have fought security law charges at trial. Both have been convicted and handed sentences as long as nine years in prison, illustrating the high stakes for those who challenge the government. Some 29 democracy activists including former student leader Joshua Wong are expected to enter guilty verdicts over security law charges, local media including HK01 reported earlier this year, with many entering their pleas since the report was released.
Lai has indicated he plans to fight the collusion charge, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, making him one of the few defendants to test the prosecution's case in court.
Last month, Lai's international lawyers called on Western governments to make his national security trial a greater foreign policy priority. Lai has been denied bail while awaiting trial and his case will be heard by three national security judges handpicked by the city's leader starting Dec 1. BLOOMBERG