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Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai was jailed for more than five years on fraud charges

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By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Hong Kong’s pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai was sentenced on Saturday to five years and nine months in prison for fraud, accused of breaching a lease on the headquarters of a liberal newspaper he ran.

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-closed Apple Daily newspaper, in what was found to be a breach of his contract of lease.

Lai’s conviction drew condemnation from the United States.

Hong Kong’s top Chinese critic Lai has been behind bars since December 2020 and served 20 months for unauthorized meetings.

He headed Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily which closed in June 2021 after a police raid.

Another Next Digital executive, Wong Wai-keung, 61, was convicted of fraud and jailed for 21 months.

District Court Judge Stanley Chan wrote in a ruling that Lai had “acted under the protective umbrella of a media organization.” Chan said this trial of a media mogul “didn’t amount to an attack on press freedom.”

The judge deducted three months from her 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 the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms under a Chinese-imposed national security law.

“The United States condemns the grossly unfair outcome of Jimmy Lai’s latest trial conviction,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

“By any objective measure, this outcome is neither right nor fair. We once again call on the PRC authorities to respect freedom of expression, including for the press, in Hong Kong,” he added.

Calling for Lai’s release, Maya Wang, Asia director of New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said: “Beijing’s elaborate prosecution of Jimmy Lai is revenge against a leading advocate of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong”.

Prosecutors said that under the terms of the newspaper’s lease on a government parcel of 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 barring 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 the Hong Kong media industry.

A separate and historic national security trial involving Lai is expected to resume on Tuesday. It has been delayed as Beijing decides on the controversial question of whether foreign lawyers, including Lai’s British lawyer 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)

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