Media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU
Media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU

Hong Kong — Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, former legislator Albert Ho and eight others pleaded guilty to organising a 2019 protest that highlighted local opposition to the Communist Party on the 70th anniversary of its rule in Beijing.

Lai, Ho and the rest entered pleas Monday related to an unauthorised assembly to mark National Day on October 1 2019, an occasion in which President Xi Jinping sought to demonstrate China’s strength by hosting a huge military parade in Beijing. The anniversary saw protests erupt across Hong Kong, with many starting out peaceful and turning violent as demonstrations dragged on and police cracked down.

Lai — the 73-year-old founder of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper — pleaded guilty to organising one protest, while pleading not guilty to taking part in it. Ho — a former Democratic Party chief and candidate for Hong Kong CEO — 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 in 2020 in response to a wave of unrest in the former British colony. He was sentenced in April to 14 months in prison over two separate unauthorised protests in August 2019.

Late on Friday, 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 shares of his Next Digital, as well as the local bank accounts of three companies 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 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. More than 40% 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.

State-run broadcaster China Central Television said in a commentary Sunday 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.”

Emily Lau, a former legislator and former chair 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.”

Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee sidestepped questions later Monday about the value of assets seized or whether the Apple Daily would be shut down, saying the action had “no direct link to journalistic work”.

“We will make use of all legal measures to prevent, interdict and suppress such endangering national security activities,” Lee told reporters, without elaborating.

Since protests ended amid Covid-19 distancing restrictions, 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 who pleaded guilty to protest-related charges on Monday was former legislator Lee Cheuk-yan.

Ho, who was given a suspended sentence in an earlier protest cases alongside Lai, said he’s appealing his sentence. Lai is also appealing his case, the South China Morning Post has previously reported.

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