Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been charged with fraud and denied bail until a court hearing in April, amid an intensifying crackdown by the city’s authorities on high-profile critics of Beijing.
Mr Lai, 73, who is the founder of Next Digital, which publishes Hong Kong’s best-selling tabloid, Apple Daily, was arrested on Wednesday night, on the same day that three prominent young pro-democracy activists were jailed for their role during last year’s anti-government protest movement.
Two other senior executives - Royston Chow and Wong Wai-keung - were also arrested, but granted bail. All three face fraud charges that court documents say are related to the paper's offices allegedly being used for purposes not permitted by the building's lease.
Charges and investigations against activists have been spurred by the introduction of a harsh national security law in June, which was aimed at crushing months of street protests calling for universal suffrage. Elected opposition politicians have also been disqualified from the city’s parliament in recent weeks.
Mr Lai, whose Apple Daily has been openly critical of Beijing, was first arrested in August on suspicion of “collusion with foreign forces” under the sweeping definitions of the new law (watch video below).
At the time Downing Street said the UK was “deeply concerned” by the arrest and viewed the law - which can impose life sentences for “sedition” – as “a pretext to silence opposition".
Mr Lai has not been charged so far with any national security breaches, but Victor So, the magistrate who remanded him to custody on Wednesday, was one from a group of judges hand-picked by Hong Kong’s chief executive to try such cases.
Mr Lai, who is also a British citizen and a resident of Taiwan, was denied bail as he was deemed to be an “absconding risk".
The decision means the millionaire faces months in jail, but his predicament will likely hold little surprise for Mr Lai, who has publicly spoken of his fears that the authorities will seek to shut his irreverent paper down and long predicted he will be targeted by Beijing, which views the tycoon, originally from Guangzhou, as a traitor.
In an interview with The Telegraph in July he said he would not attempt to leave the city despite the risks and his concerns about vaguely-defined national security charges which could see him jailed in mainland China.
“If I leave I would disgrace myself and undermine the democratic movement. I would be a fool to leave. I will be here in Hong Kong until the last day,” he said. “Whatever happens, we will face it.”
Mr Lai is also being prosecuted for his alleged role in last year’s pro-democracy rallies.
The clampdown on leading figures of the pro-democracy movement has prompted outrage among western governments and accusations that China’s Communist Party has reneged on a legally-binding agreement that guaranteed Hong Kong citizens rights and freedoms when the UK handed the former colony back to Beijing.
On Wednesday Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, all leading members of the now disbanded Demosisto political party, were handed sentences ranging from seven to 13½ months for their part in a mass rally outside a Hong Kong police station last year.
Following the verdict, Dominic Raab, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, urged “the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to bring an end to their campaign to stifle opposition".
Ms Chow on Thursday spent her 24th birthday in jail.