HONG KONG • Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, former lawmaker Albert Ho and eight others pleaded guilty yesterday to organising a 2019 protest that highlighted local opposition to the Chinese Communist Party on the 70th anniversary of its rule in Beijing.
All 10 entered pleas related to an unauthorised assembly to mark National Day on Oct 1, 2019, an occasion on 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 later and police cracked down.
Lai - the 73-year-old founder of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper - pleaded guilty to organising one protest, but pleaded not guilty to taking part in it.
Ho - a former Democratic Party chief and candidate for Hong Kong chief executive - pleaded guilty to organising, 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 last month to 14 months in prison over two separate unauthorised protests in August 2019.
Late last Friday, the 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 of Lai's shares in Next Digital, as well as the local bank accounts of three firms 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 the 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 centre.
Meanwhile, more than 40 per cent 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.
China's state-run broadcaster China Central Television said in a Sunday commentary 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."
Former lawmaker Emily Lau, an ex-chairman 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."
Mr Lee sidestepped questions yesterday about the value of assets seized and whether Apple Daily would be shut down, saying the action had "no direct link to journalistic work". He told reporters: "We will make use of all legal measures to prevent, interdict and suppress such endangering national security activities."
Since protests ended amid Covid-19 distancing restrictions, the 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 person who pleaded guilty to protest-related charges yesterday was former lawmaker Lee Cheuk Yan.
Ho, who was given a suspended sentence in one of the earlier protest cases alongside Lai, said he is appealing against his sentence. Lai is also appealing over his case, the South China Morning Post has previously reported.