Hong Kong Activists Call Jimmy Lai ‘Mastermind’ in Security Case
(Bloomberg) -- A pair of Hong Kong activists identified Jimmy Lai and a former aide as “masterminds” in a campaign to sanction China, as part of a plea deal that strengthens the government’s national security case against the jailed media tycoon.
Activist Andy Li and legal assistant Chan Tsz-wah agreed to the description Thursday in the High Court, after entering guilty pleas to conspiracy to collude with foreign forces to endanger national security. The two men admitted that Lai and a former top aide, Mark Simon, organized and funded a publicity campaign to encourage U.S. sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials and Huawei Technologies Co.
“I agree with the facts and I want to say, ‘Sorry,’” Li told the court, presided over by Judge Alex Lee. Li was among a dozen activists who tried to flee to democratically run Taiwan by boat last year, in a high-profile case that prompted public outcry in Hong Kong.
A lawyer for Lai, who has denied the collusion allegations, said the legal team couldn’t immediately comment on Thursday’s proceedings. Simon, who isn’t in Hong Kong, argued it was “no secret” that he had booked ads in global newspapers to raise awareness about Hong Kong, something he said Lai wasn’t involved with.
“But as for masterminds of anything? No, my vanity isn’t that great,” Simon said by text.
The guilty pleas give the government potential witnesses in the more high profile foreign collusion case against Lai, who for decades supported pro-democracy causes through the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper. The Next Digital Ltd. founder is in jail on charges related to unauthorized protests and is next scheduled to appear in court to face the national security allegations on Oct. 12.
The guilty pleas are the first in Hong Kong under the Beijing-imposed security law, which bans secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces, and carries prison sentences as long as life in prison. More than 130 people -- including journalists, activists and former lawmakers -- have been arrested under the legislation and the U.S. has sanctioned Chinese officials including Chief Executive Carrie Lam over the crackdown.
The law’s broad wording, long sentences and restrictions on jury trials put pressure on defendants to plead guilty before facing a panel of judges specially vetted by Lam. Last month, a court handed down a nine-year sentence in the first national security trial, after convicting former waiter Tong Ying-kit of incitement to secession and engaging in terrorist activities for driving a motorcycle into a group of police while carrying a protest banner.
A guilty plea could help a defendant get their sentence reduced by one-third, said Sharron Fast, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. “A plea of guilty at an early stage in otherwise unwinnable cases disposes of the matter quickly, and potentially can have the advantage of concurrent or partially concurrent -- rather than consecutive -- sentences,” Fast said before the hearing Thursday.
Neither Li nor Chan were immediately sentenced. The case was adjourned until Jan. 3. Li served a seven-month sentence on the mainland on charges of illegal border crossing before being returned to Hong Kong in March.
The case against Lai initially centered on his social media posts and comments to foreign media outlets, as well as donations police say he made to the advocacy group “Stand With Hong Kong,” according to court filings and local media reports citing police documents. Among 18 Twitter posts highlighted by police, was one after the August detention of a dozen Hong Kongers caught fleeing to Taiwan, in which Lai wrote: “Can the U.S. Government find ways to save these kids?”
In court Thursday, prosecutors read out a long narrative accusing Lai and Simon of working with Li, Chan and a third man, Lau Cho-dik, to organize an “international propaganda campaign” in 2019 to encourage foreign countries to “impose sanctions or blockade or engage in other hostile activities against” the country. Li also attended a January 2020 meeting at which Lai say he wanted to “bring down” the Chinese government, the prosecutors said.
The narrative was then endorsed by Li and Chan.
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