HONG KONG • Hong Kong media tycoon and Beijing critic Jimmy Lai appeared in court yesterday morning to face a charge under the city's national security law that could put him in jail for life.
He is accused of colluding with foreign countries, calling on overseas governments to sanction Hong Kong and China in response to the crackdown on pro-democracy activism in the city.
Lai, 73, is the most high-profile person charged under the sweeping law, which has targeted the city's pro-democracy movement but brought a semblance of calm to the financial hub after months of often violent protests.
The police's new national security department charged him on Friday with "collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security" under the security law. The offence carries a penalty of up to life imprisonment.
The prosecutor told the court that Lai's offence was requesting, from July 1 to Dec 1, that a foreign country or institution, organisation or individual outside mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau "impose sanctions or blockade, or engage in other hostile activities" against Hong Kong and China.
Lai, calm throughout, said he acknowledged the charge.
Chief Magistrate Victor So, one of six magistrates handpicked by the city's pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam to handle national security cases, said the prosecution needed time to further investigate more than 1,000 messages from Lai's Twitter accounts, a number of media interviews he gave, and a number of overseas visits in relation to calls for US sanctions against Hong Kong and China.
After the hearing, Lai's supporters shouted words of encouragement, which he returned with a heart-shaped hand gesture.
Lai is the owner of Hong Kong's Apple Daily, a popular newspaper that is unashamedly pro-democracy and fiercely critical of the authorities.
The police raided the paper's headquarters in August and arrested a string of senior company figures, including Lai.
Last week, he was denied bail and remanded in custody until next April after being charged with fraud.
He was set to apply for bail on that charge on Tuesday.
However, the security law states that no bail should be granted unless the judge has sufficient grounds to believe the suspect will not continue to endanger national security.
Yesterday, Chief Magistrate So denied Lai's bail application.
Separately, former Hong Kong lawmaker and pro-independence activist Sixtus Leung said on Friday he had left the city and was in the United States to seek asylum.
He is the latest in a string of democracy activists and former legislators who have fled Hong Kong since Beijing imposed the national security law in June.