Pro-democracy Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai has been charged with fraud and sentenced to five years and nine months in prison.
The 75-year-old billionaire was convicted on Saturday, of two counts of fraud for covering up the operations of private company, Dico Consultants Ltd, at the headquarters of the now shuttered Apple Daily newspaper, in what was ruled a breach of its land lease.
First arrested and charged in December 2020, the fierce China critic has served 20 months for unauthorised assemblies during mass pro-democracy protests in 2019. Nine others served jail time or suspended sentences.
Lai was the head of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily which was shut down in June 2021 following a police raid. Wong Wai-keung, 61, another Next Digital executive, was found guilty of fraud and jailed for 21 months.
A judgement written by District Court Judge Stanley Chan wrote that Lai had "acted under the protective umbrella of a media organization". He added that the prosecution of a media tycoon "wasn't equivalent to an attack on press freedom".
The prosecution said the newspaper could only be used for "publishing and printing" without prior approval from the operator, due to its lease conditions on a plot of government land. Acknowledging much of the prosecutions case, Lai's sentence was reduced by three months.
Governments in the west, including the United States, have expressed concern about Lai's plight and condemned what they call a broader deterioration in protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms under a China-imposed National Security Law.
"Beijing's elaborate criminal case against Jimmy Lai is a vendetta against a leading proponent of democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong," said Asia director with the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Maya Wang, calling for Lai's release.
Derek Chan, Lai's lawyer, had urged the judge to consider Lai's age and contributions to Hong Kong's media industry.
A separate, landmark national security trial involving Lai is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.
It has been delayed while Beijing decides on the controversial issue of whether foreign lawyers, including Lai's British barrister Timothy Owen, should be allowed to work on national security cases.
Lai faces a maximum possible life sentence for two counts of conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries or external elements, and one count of collusion with foreign forces under the national security law.
He also faces a sedition charge linked to the Apple Daily newspaper.