Jimmy Lai pleads guilty over another unauthorized assembly
Legal pursuit for head secessionists behind HK social turmoil will be thorough: experts
Published: May 17, 2021 09:36 PM
Jimmy Lai Photo:VCG

Jimmy Lai Photo:VCG

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and nine other defendants behind Hong Kong's social turmoil pleaded guilty on Monday to organizing and taking part in an unauthorized assembly on October 1, 2019. 

Earlier, Lai's assets were frozen under the national security law for Hong Kong and his Apple Daily's Taiwan branch ceased its print edition. 

Experts noted that recent actions against Lai show that the legal pursuit and punishment for head secessionists behind Hong Kong's yearlong social turmoil will be thorough.

Lai and nine other head secessionists, including Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho, were in a Hong Kong court Monday morning for their alleged involvement in an unauthorized assembly in October 2019, at the height of the region's yearlong social turmoil. Ten pleaded guilty in court, and sentencing is scheduled for May 28. 

This is the first time that the 73-year-old founder of Apple Daily appeared in public sight since Hong Kong authorities froze all of his shares in the Next Digital media company and his bank assets under the national security law for Hong Kong, which was more than HK$300 million ($38.6 million) as estimated by some media.

Lai's woes go beyond funding, as one of his major newspapers announced that it will cease publication. The Taiwan version of Apple Daily said on Friday that it will stop publishing its print edition on May 18, quoting "huge losses in advertising revenue." 

The Hong Kong version of Apple Daily said it will "fight on" despite the pressure it has come under. However, the paper has been losing the Hong Kong public with it biased reports which mislead young people. 

The tabloid will also facea big funding problem. Although Next Digital's CEO Cheung Kim-hung said Lai's assets being frozen would not affect Apple Daily's operations in Hong Kong, on Monday, the first trading day after Lai's assets were frozen, Next Digital shares were suspended at the company's request.

"Since Jimmy Lai's assets have been 'frozen' in their bank accounts, they cannot be used to subsidize the operations of its media," Lawrence Ma, barrister and chairman of the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, told the Global Times on Monday. "Daily operating expenses will soon be short and liquidity will soon be a problem for the media company."

Secretary for Security John Lee said on Monday that freezing Lai's assets has nothing to do with protection of private property, "because we have legal provisions clearly stipulating in what situations effective measures must be carried out to prevent funds from facilitating or rewarding crimes."

"If the activities endanger national security, it would be handled in line with the law. It has no direct relations with journalism as people in any profession should obey the law," Lee said, rebutting claims that asked if the action taken on the media tycoon would violate freedom of the press. 

Lawmaker Elizabeth Quat also urged the Hong Kong government to lay a thorough investigation into Apple Daily on whether it had violated the Crime Ordinance or the national security law. 

Lai is serving prison terms on multiple convictions. In April, a Hong Kong court sentenced Lai to 14 months in prison for taking part in another unauthorized assembly in 2019.

Lai is also facing other unauthorized assembly cases and multiple charges under the national security law, including collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. 

The recent convictions and asset freezes show that the legal pursuit and punishment of Lai and other head secessionists behind Hong Kong's yearlong social turmoil will be thorough, Zhi Zhenfeng, a legal expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, told the Global Times on Monday.

Over the years, Lai has acted as a pawn of foreign anti-China forces, and as a "mastermind of Hong Kong's mischief and chaos," Zhi said. "His actions of direct incitement, organization and participation in a series of illegal gatherings, and conspiring with foreign forces to endanger national security will face justice."

With the full implementation of "patriots ruling Hong Kong," the room for external forces to interfere in Hong Kong affairs has been greatly reduced, and Western pawns like Lai have been abandoned, Zhi noted. 

"His time in jail will be further prolonged with one conviction after another.  It will be years before he would be released," Ma said on Lai's possible sentence. 

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