By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Pro-democracy Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai was sentenced on Saturday to five years and nine months in prison for fraud, convicted of violating a lease contract for the headquarters of a liberal newspaper he used to run.
Lai, 75, was found guilty of two counts of fraud for covering up the operations of a private company, Dico Consultants Ltd, at the headquarters of the now shuttered Apple Daily newspaper, in what was ruled a breach of its land lease.
Lai’s sentencing drew U.S. condemnation.
Hong Kong’s most prominent China critic, Lai has been behind bars since December 2020 and has served 20 months for unauthorised assemblies.
He was the head of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily that shut down in June 2021 after a police raid.
Another Next Digital executive, Wong Wai-keung, 61, was found guilty of fraud and jailed for 21 months.
District Court Judge Stanley Chan wrote in a judgement that Lai had “acted under the protective umbrella of a media organization”. Chan said this prosecution of a media tycoon “wasn’t equivalent to an attack on press freedom.”
The judge deducted three months from his sentence as Lai had acknowledged much of the prosecution’s case.
Western governments including the United States have expressed concern about Lai’s plight and denounced what they call a broader deterioration in protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms under a China-imposed National Security Law.
“The United States condemns the grossly unjust outcome of Jimmy Lai’s latest trial sentencing,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
“By any objective measure, this result is neither fair nor just. We once again call on PRC authorities to respect freedom of expression, including for the press, in Hong Kong,” he added.
Calling for Lai’s release, Maya Wang, an Asia director with the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said: “Beijing’s elaborate criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a vendetta against a leading proponent of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong.”
Prosecutors said that under the newspaper’s lease conditions on a plot of government land in a science park, the property could only be used for “publishing and printing” without prior approval from the operator.
Chan issued an order preventing Lai from becoming a director of any company for eight years and fined him HK$2 million ($260,000).
Lai’s lawyer, Derek Chan, had urged the judge to consider Lai’s age and contributions to Hong Kong’s media industry.
A separate, landmark national security trial involving Lai is scheduled to resume on Tuesday. It was delayed while Beijing decides on the controversial issue of whether foreign lawyers, including Lai’s British barrister Timothy Owen, should be allowed to work on national security cases.
($1 = 7.7854 Hong Kong dollars)
(Reporting by Jessie Pang and James Pomfret; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washinton; Editing by William Mallard and Daniel Wallis)