Media tycoon Jimmy Lai did not seek approval from the landlord of Apple Daily’s headquarters to operate a consultancy firm at the newspaper’s offices, a Hong Kong court has heard.

Lai, the founder of defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, and Wong Wai-keung, the former director of administration at Next Digital – Apple Daily’s parent company – appeared in front of Judge Stanley Chan at the District Court on Wednesday as part of an ongoing fraud trial.

Apple Daily
Apple Daily headquarters. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Lai and Wong stand accused of concealing the fact that a consultancy firm was operated out of Apple Daily’s headquarters and providing false information to the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP), the owner of the office complex.

Both Lai and Wong pleaded not guilty to fraud charges last Wednesday.

The prosecution summoned Albert Wong, who joined the HKSTP in February 2016 and became chief executive officer in August of the same year, as its first witness on Wednesday.

He told the court that neither Dico Consultants Limited (Dico) nor Apple Daily’s charitable foundation had applied for licenses or gained approval to operate out of the publication’s premises, according to HKSTP records.

science park sha tin
Hong Kong Science Park. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Albert Wong said HKSTP had issued Apple Daily a request for clarification in early 2020 after it learnt from “media enquiries and other places” that Dico and the charity might be operating from Apple Daily’s offices. In April, Apple Daily replied, saying that the two entities “had only used the name but not the place,” he said.

The court heard that in June 2021 HKSTP had “issued a [legal] letter” regarding taking the property back from Apple Daily.

Police officers raided Apple Daily’s headquarters and arrested five senior executives on June 17, 2021. The 26-year-old newspaper halted operations a week later, after its assets were frozen by the authorities under the national security law.

HKSTP sent two letters via a legal firm to Apple Daily Publishing Limited on June 15 and 23 last year, according to its CEO.

Referencing a court document, the prosecution said that the HKSTP also issued a writ of summons on September 14, demanding that Apple Daily hand over its management rights of the premises.

However, HKSTP’s CEO said he could not remember the company’s lawyers carrying out any major legal action or filing any applications to the judiciary after the second letter in June.

jimmy lai arrested in detention custody shackle handcuffs chained
The founder of the now-defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai. File photo: Supplied.

The judge then asked whether the witness could recall the instructions HKSTP had given the legal firm. “You are one of the executives at the HKSTP. As we know, law firms are run by profits and they will only act according to instructions,” Chan said, but Albert Wong said he had forgotten what came after the legal letters and he would have to check the company records.

Lai has been behind bars since December 2020, and is currently serving time in jail for other protest-related cases. He also faces charges under the colonial-era sedition law.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.