Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai will spend the next six months in prison after he was denied bail on Thursday on what critics say are trumped-up charges designed to remove one of the government’s most vocal critics.
Lai is a well-known figure in the territory’s democracy movement and his media company Next Digital publishes the China-sceptic newspaper Apple Daily in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The 71-year-old was arrested on Wednesday on charges of fraud for using his offices for purposes not stated on the lease, alongside two of his Next Digital colleagues, CEO Wong Wai-keung and Chief Operating Officer Chow Tat-kuen.
Wong and Chow were released on bail, but the magistrate said Lai would have to remain in custody until April 16 because there was a risk he would abscond.
Prosecutors said they wanted to keep the tycoon in custody as they investigate whether he violated Hong Kong’s new national security legislation by “colluding with foreign forces,” according to the South China Morning Post.
In August, Lai was one of many prominent Hong Kong democracy figures arrested under the new law and the Hong Kong offices of Apple Daily were also raided.
Lai’s re-arrest came the same day as three of Hong Kong’s best-known democracy activists – Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow – were sentenced to between 13.5 and seven months in prison for their role in the city’s 2019 democracy protests.
Former democratic legislator Claudia Mo told Al Jazeera that the authorities were conducting a “reign of fear” intent on breaking down morale.
“Day after day they just keep arresting, charging and throwing more people behind bars,” she said. “They want Hongkongers to just get used to it. They’re trying hard to numb, to introduce political inertia into this city.
“The fact that Jimmy Lai is a media tycoon and a democracy figure here tells you the press on the whole could be a key target too, that the press here and abroad should get the chilling message that if you ever get caught breaking the law in any way you could be in dire trouble.”
Lai’s detention has fuelled criticism abroad, including a rebuke from the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which said on Wednesday Beijing was trying to make an example of the media mogul.
“When Hong Kong police picked him up Wednesday on dubious fraud charges, China was sending a clear message: If you oppose us anywhere in the world, we will crush you. In Mr Lai’s case the decision to arrest him over the terms of a business lease sends the additional message that any charges will do,” the editorial said.
It also urged the US to impose sanctions on additional government officials. In August, 11 officials including the territory’s leader, Carrie Lam, were sanctioned for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom of expression.