Hong Kong court denies bail to Apple Daily staff facing national security charges

In this photo taken on June 17, 2021, an Apple Daily staff is escorted by police from the Apple Daily office to a nearby vehicle. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Four staff members from the now-closed pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper were denied bail in a Hong Kong court on Thursday (July 22) after they were charged with colluding with foreign forces under a national security law that has intensified fears over media freedoms.

Public broadcaster RTHK said national security judge Victor So rejected their bail applications because there was not enough evidence to show the defendants "will not commit further acts endangering national security".

The charges are the latest in a national security probe into media tycoon Jimmy Lai's newspaper, which folded after several hundred police raided its headquarters on June 17, freezing key assets and bank accounts.

The case has been adjourned until September 30.

Police, who typically do not name people under investigation, said late on Wednesday they had charged four individuals, ages 51 to 57, including one who had been arrested earlier in the day.

RTHK identified the four as staff of the former Apple Daily newspaper, including the former executive editor-in-chief, who was arrested on Wednesday.

The police force's national security department said it was charging four people, whom it did not identify, "for the offence of conspiracy to collude with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security."

Media group Next Digital, which published Apple Daily, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The popular tabloid of staunch Beijing critic Lai printed its last edition on June 24 after the police raid and several staff arrests.

Police have said dozens of the paper's articles may have violated the city's China-imposed national security law, the first instance of authorities taking aim at media reports under the legislation.

Critics of the law, introduced in June 2020, say it has been used to muzzle dissent and erode fundamental freedoms, including those of the media, in the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Authorities have denied the erosion of rights and freedoms, including the media, in Hong Kong, but said acts that endangered China's national security crossed a red line. Security officials have said law enforcement actions are based on evidence and have nothing to do with an individual's background or profession.

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