Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media mogul and one of the city’s most public critics of the Chinese Communist party, was denied bail on Thursday and will remain in custody until at least April.
The billionaire tycoon and pro-democracy campaigner appeared in court a day after Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, three of the territory’s most high-profile activists, were jailed over their involvement in last year’s anti-government protests.
The fraud charges relate to accusations that Mr Lai did not use a business premises as permitted under the terms of its lease.
Mr Lai, 73, has been a longstanding target of Beijing and his Apple Daily tabloid is Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper. He was also a frequent presence at protests last year.
He was arrested in August for allegedly “colluding with foreign forces” under the national security law, a sweeping set of rules imposed by China on the semi-autonomous territory. He has denied the allegations.
Mr Lai backed President Donald Trump’s aggressive approach to Beijing and has met senior US officials including Mike Pence, vice-president, and Mike Pompeo, secretary of state.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Lai said he feared a Joe Biden administration would retreat from these tough tactics.
Mr Lai’s reputation was damaged in the eyes of US liberals and Beijing, however, after Mark Simon, a former senior adviser, admitted to using his money to fund a critical report into the alleged business links of Hunter Biden, the son of the US president-elect, to the Chinese Communist party. Mr Lai claimed he was unaware of the project and Mr Simon resigned.
He was charged on Thursday alongside two other executives from Next Digital, Mr Lai’s media company. They, however, were both granted bail.
Eric Cheung, a Hong Kong legal scholar, said the decision to deny Mr Lai bail was a surprise, because the offence was not particularly serious, and that it was likely the tycoon would appeal.
Lam Cheuk-ting, a former opposition politician in Hong Kong who was in court, said he was “astonished” by the decision and accused the court of “political prosecution”.
Victor So, the magistrate who denied Mr Lai bail, is from a pool of judges selected by Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, to preside over cases involving the national security law.
After both the UK and EU criticised the sentences handed to Mr Wong and Ms Chow, Beijing accused foreign nations in an editorial in the state-run China Daily of “peddling a kind of exceptionalism seeking to place the leading figures in the opposition camp above the law”.
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