HONG KONG • Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was denied bail yesterday on a fraud charge related to the lease of a building that houses his newspaper Apple Daily.
The Hong Kong authorities have intensified a crackdown on key opposition figures in the Chinese-ruled city since Beijing imposed sweeping national security legislation on the global financial centre on June 30.
While Lai's fraud charge did not fall under the national security law, it marks the latest crackdown on pro-democracy figures in the former British colony, which was handed back to China in 1997, with Beijing promising to keep its free-wheeling way of life for 50 years.
Critics say the national security law crushes freedoms enshrined under the "one country, two systems" formula, while supporters say it will bring stability after prolonged anti-government, pro-democracy protests last year.
Lai, 73, an ardent critic of Beijing, had been detained on Wednesday. He was ordered to remain in custody yesterday, pending further proceedings. Two senior executives of Lai's Next Media group, who were charged alongside him, were released on bail, said Mr Mark Simon, an associate of Lai.
Judge Victor So of the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts adjourned the case until April 16, the tabloid-style Apple Daily reported.
On Wednesday, Joshua Wong, 24, one of Hong Kong's most prominent democracy activists, was jailed for 13½ months for his role in an anti-government rally last year, the toughest sentencing of an opposition figure this year.
Yesterday, former Democratic Party legislator Ted Hui announced that he will go into exile, and will not be returning to Hong Kong, public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong reported.
Mr Hui, who is facing a number of protest-related prosecutions, had left Hong Kong for Denmark on Monday.
Lai and the two senior executives are said to have falsely represented the use of their office space to their landlord, a public corporation set up by the Hong Kong government.
The charge states that they were not using the office space as permitted under the lease between 2016 and 2020, and had sub-let part of the premises, resulting in benefits to Apple Daily.
Next Digital, which suspended trading yesterday morning, said in a statement that it did not expect the charges to have an immediate impact on its daily operations, as the company is operated by a team of management personnel. Its shares will resume trading today.
"This is about dirtying Jimmy up. It's Beijing's policing brought to Hong Kong," Mr Simon told Reuters.
Lai was arrested in August when about 200 police officers swooped on his offices. Hong Kong police later said they had arrested nine men and one woman for suspected offences including "collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security, conspiracy to defraud" and others.
Suspicion of colluding with foreign forces carries a maximum sentence of life in jail under the new security law.
Lai has been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has met officials including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a "traitor".
The security law punishes anything China considers subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.