By Katherine Cheng
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong's top court ordered media tycoon Jimmy Lai, the most high-profile person to be charged under the city's national security law, back into custody on Thursday, saying a judge may have erred in a decision to release him on bail.
The Court of Final Appeal's ruling comes a week after Lai, one of Hong Kong's most prominent democracy activists who is accused of colluding with foreign forces, was released on HK$10 million ($1.3 million) bail along with extensive restrictions that included barring him from using social media.
Lai, 73, was in court. He was not immediately available for comment after the ruling but is due back in court on Feb. 1 for another appeal hearing regarding his bail, the court said.
Beijing imposed the national security legislation on the former British colony in June after months of pro-democracy protests.
Critics say it is aimed at crushing dissent and it erodes freedoms in the semi-autonomous, Chinese-ruled city - charges that authorities in Hong Kong and China reject.
Lai, a critic of Beijing who had been a frequent visitor to Washington, is widely believed to be a target of the new legislation.
Prosecutors have accused Lai of breaching the security law over statements he made on July 30 and Aug. 18, in which they allege he requested foreign interference in Hong Kong's affairs.
In the earlier bail ruling, a High Court judge said Lai's remarks appeared to be "comments and criticisms" rather than a request for interference.
But on Thursday, the judges questioned that earlier assessment.
"We consider it reasonably arguable in the present case that the learned judge may have erred," the judges said in their ruling, referring to Article 42 of the security law.
The article stipulates that "no bail shall be granted to a criminal suspect or defendant unless the judge has sufficient grounds for believing that the criminal suspect or defendant will not continue to commit acts endangering national security".
Outgoing Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma, Andrew Cheung, who replaces Ma as the city's most senior judge in January, and Roberto Ribeiro presided over the hearing.
In an editorial published on Dec. 27, the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily said Lai was "extremely dangerous" and an "insurgent" and urged the Hong Kong judiciary to "make the right decision" in the bail appeal.
Five people from Hong Kong's Law Society, which has more than 10,000 registered members, expressed "grave" concern over the comments and called on Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng to take action to defend the judiciary against "unwarranted" accusations by state-controlled media.
Lai stepped down earlier this week as chairman of Next Digital, which publishes Apple Daily, a popular tabloid newspaper known for its feisty and critical coverage of China and Hong Kong.
The security law, which has drawn strong condemnation from Western governments and rights groups, punishes what Beijing broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in jail.
Under the new law, the onus is on the defendant to prove they would not be a national security threat if released on bail. Under Hong Kong's common law-based legal system, the onus has traditionally been on the prosecution to prove its case.
(Reporting By Katherine Cheng and Jessie Pang, Writing by Anne Marie RoantreeEditing by Robert Birsel)