Last week’s jailing of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai “has nothing to do with freedom of the press or freedom of speech” the Hong Kong government has said, following criticism from the US.

jimmy lai
Jimmy Lai. Photo: Todd Darling.

The founder of the now-shuttered Apple Daily received five years and nine months behind bars – and a HK$2 million fine – for fraud, after he breached the tabloid’s property lease by using some of the office complex for his own consultancy firm. The defence said 0.16 per cent of the space was used for the 75-year-old’s consultancy firm.

On Sunday, Ned Price – spokesperson for the US State Department – tweeted: “The United States condemns the grossly unjust outcome of Jimmy Lai’s latest trial sentencing. By any objective measure, this result is neither fair nor just. We once again call on PRC [People’s Republic of China] authorities to respect freedom of expression, including for the press, in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong deemed the statement “blatant interference,” accusing Washington of “hegemonic bullying” and “malicious slander.”

“In pursuit of its political interests, the US has blatantly interfered in the fair trial by the court, seriously undermined the spirit of the rule of law and contravened international standards and international law. The use of numerous fallacies by the US is nothing but exposure of its hegemonic bullying, resulting in a loss of its credibility,” a Hong Kong government spokesperson said in a press release on Sunday, calling the US statement “absurd.”

The sentiment was echoed by the Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong on Sunday: “We urge external forces to refrain from interfering in the judiciary of the SAR and in any other Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights,” a statement read, according to China Daily.

Lai has been in custody since December 2020, and also faces charges under the colonial-era sedition legislation and security law.

NGOs urge release

International rights NGOs also hit out at Friday’s sentencing, which took place on international Human Rights Day.

High Court
The High Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Maya Wang, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch said: “Beijing’s elaborate criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a vendetta against a leading proponent of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong. The authorities should drop the case against Lai and free him immediately.”

Cédric Alviani, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) East Asia chief, also urged Lai’s release: “Illegal demonstration, fraud, national security crimes—the diversity of the charges held against Jimmy Lai, and the staggering severity of the sentences imposed on him, show how desperate the Chinese regime is to silence this symbolic figure of press freedom in Hong Kong.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists echoed calls for Lai’s release.

Son urges UK intervention

Following Friday’s sentencing, Lai’s son Sebastien, who is based in Taiwan, urged the UK to take action, given that his father is a British national. “My dad is a British citizen who has done nothing wrong. I call on the UK Government to take urgent action to project my dad immediately and secure his freedom. The UK must do all it can to stop this, and do it now,” he wrote in a statement.

When HKFP approached the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, it referred to a tweet by Minister for Indo-Pacific Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who said she was “disappointed” with the ruling. “[Lai] among others have been pursued in an obvious effort to silence opposition voices,” she wrote.

Apple Daily folded in June 2021 after Lai and several other senior staff were charged under Beijing’s sweeping national security legislation. Six former staff members of Apple Daily and its parent company Next Digital pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit collusion last month.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.