Media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was released on bail by Hong Kong’s high court after 20 days in jail on charges of fraud and foreign collusion.
Lai was released under house arrest on a 10 million Hong Kong dollar (£ 960,000) bail on Wednesday afternoon. He was ordered to hand over all travel documents and prohibited from speaking to the press, making public statements, using social media, meeting with foreign officials and “colluding with foreign forces,” local media reported.
Lai had been in jail since December 3, when he was charged with fraud and denied bail. Ten days later, he was again denied bail, charged with foreign collusion under national security law.
On Wednesday, the higher court, including a judge known to have been appointed to oversee national security cases, ordered Lai’s release, albeit under strict conditions. Within hours, the Justice Department said it was requesting permission to appeal, RTHK reported.
The fraud charges, brought against Lai and two Next Digital Media executives, relate to allegations that the trio violated the terms of the land lease by misusing Next Digital’s office space at Tseung Kwan O for other purposes. The foreign collusion charges were reportedly based on Lai’s posted tweets and comments, as well as interviews with foreign media.
Some of the alleged crimes cited by police occurred before the non-retroactive law came into effect, including a tweet to Donald Trump asking him to sanction Chinese officials.
Both cases are scheduled to return to court in early April, and Lai faces separate charges for unauthorized meetings. Denying bail earlier this month, the judge said Lai had committed crimes while awaiting trial on other charges.
Police arrested more than 30 people under the national security law enacted in late June, most for non-violent political crimes. Four people have been charged. Of these, Lai is the only one who has been granted bail.
The national security law states: “Bail shall not be granted to a suspect or accused of a crime unless the judge has sufficient reason to believe that the suspect or accused will not continue to commit acts that endanger national security.”
Lai has been one of the most outspoken voices in favor of democracy, continuing to criticize Beijing’s intrusions into Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy even as the authorities stepped up their crackdown on the opposition and increased pressure on the media and the judiciary. .
More than 10,000 people have been arrested during the 2019 mass protests, including dozens of activists and politicians, and at least 2,000 prosecuted. Earlier this month, high-profile activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were jailed, while other activists have fled abroad. Pro-democracy lawmakers resigned from the Hong Kong legislature in protest at a Beijing directive allowing the disqualification of four of their colleagues.
International condemnation and diplomatic sanctions on Beijing and Hong Kong officials have had little or no impact on the crackdown.
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