Hong Kong’s Lai Pleads Guilty in Protest Case; Assets Frozen

Jimmy Lai, exits a Correctional Services Department vehicle as he arrives at the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong. (Photographer: Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg)

Hong Kong’s Lai Pleads Guilty in Protest Case; Assets Frozen

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, former lawmaker Albert Ho and eight others pleaded guilty to organizing a 2019 protest that highlighted local opposition to the Communist Party on the 70th anniversary of its rule in Beijing.

Lai, Ho and the rest entered pleas Monday related to an unauthorized assembly to mark National Day on Oct. 1, 2019, an occasion in which President Xi Jinping sought to demonstrate China’s strength by hosting a massive military parade in Beijing. The anniversary saw protests erupt across Hong Kong, with many starting out peaceful and turning violent as demonstrations dragged on and police cracked down.

Hong Kong’s Lai Pleads Guilty in Protest Case; Assets Frozen

Lai -- the 73-year-old founder of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper -- pleaded guilty to organizing one protest, while pleading not guilty to taking part in it. Ho -- a former Democratic Party chief and candidate for Hong Kong chief executive -- pleaded guilty to organizing, announcing and inciting others to take part in a demonstration.

The defendants are expected to be sentenced on May 28. Lai is facing a flurry of other criminal cases, including charges under a national security law that China imposed last year in response to a wave of unrest in the former British colony. He was sentenced in April to 14 months in prison over two separate unauthorized protests in August 2019.

Late on Friday, Hong Kong authorities froze some of the media tycoon’s assets, citing the security law. Secretary for Security John Lee issued notices to freeze all shares of his Next Digital Ltd., as well as the local bank accounts of three companies owned by him, the government said in a statement. Shares of Next Digital have been suspended from trading on Hong Kong’s exchange.

The move marks the first time local authorities have used the security law to freeze the shares of a major investor in a listed company, a step that could spook investors in the financial center. More than 40% of members surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said they might leave the city, highlighting the business community’s concern over the security law and the government’s handling of Covid-19.

State-run broadcaster China Central Television said in a commentary Sunday that “doomsday is getting closer and closer” for Next Digital and Apple Daily.

“The end is finally here after this ‘rotten apple’ plagued Hong Kong for 20 years,” the commentary said. “It can no longer hide under the umbrella of ‘press freedom’ and do dirty tricks like incitement and brainwashing.”

Emily Lau, a former lawmaker and ex-chairwoman of the Democratic Party, called the freezing of Lai’s assets very alarming and said the government should explain the move.

“There could be further arrests of people and maybe closing down of newspapers,” she said. “This is really white terror.”

Hong Kong’s Lai Pleads Guilty in Protest Case; Assets Frozen

Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee sidestepped questions later Mondayabout the value of assets seized or whether the Apple Daily would be shut down, saying the action had “no direct link to journalistic work.” “We will make use of all legal measures to prevent, interdict and suppress such endangering national security activities,” Lee told reporters, without elaborating.

Since protests ended amid Covid-19 distancing restrictions, Hong Kong authorities have arrested and prosecuted dozens of the city’s most prominent opposition figures -- from pro-democracy politicians and students to lawyers and social workers. Another who pleaded guilty to protest-related charges on Monday was former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan.

Ho, who was given a suspended sentence in an earlier protest cases alongside Lai, said he’s appealing his sentence. Lai is also appealing his case, the South China Morning Post has previously reported.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.