Hong Kong democracy activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai has been charged under the city’s national security law on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces, his Apple Daily newspaper reported on Dec. 11, citing a police source.
Lai, an ardent critic of the Chinese Communist Party, would be the highest profile person charged under the sweeping new law imposed on the city in June.
The 73-year-old was due to appear in court on Dec. 12, according to Apple Daily, a popular tabloid known for its feisty and critical coverage of China and Hong Kong.
The controversial security law, which punishes what Beijing broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in jail, has been condemned by the West and human rights groups as a tool to crush dissent in the semi-autonomous, Chinese-ruled city.
Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing say it is vital to plug gaping holes in national security defences exposed by months of pro-democracy protests that rocked the global financial hub over the last year.
“The goal is to hold Jimmy Lai, and shut Jimmy Lai up,” Mark Simon, an associate of Lai, told Reuters.
The publishing mogul is one of the financial hub’s most prominent democracy activists, while his Next Media group is considered one of the key remaining bastions of media freedoms in Hong Kong.
Tensions between China and the United States have escalated in recent weeks as Washington accuses Beijing of using the security law to trample wide-ranging freedoms guaranteed when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Authorities have intensified a crackdown on opposition forces in the city, dismissing lawmakers from the legislature, conducting widespread arrests and jailing high-profile democracy activists such as Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow.
Lai was denied bail earlier this month following his arrest on a separate charge of fraud related to the lease of a building that houses his Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper.
He was arrested in August when about 200 police officers swooped on his offices. Hong Kong police later said they had arrested nine men and one woman for suspected offences including “collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security, conspiracy to defraud” and others.
Lai, a Catholic, had been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has met officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.
He is currently being held in a solitary cell at the detention center, where he has received visits from his sons and from Hong Kong’s outspoken Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen.
Lai was born to a rich family in mainland China in 1947. His family suffered once the communists took power in 1949, with his mother being sent to a labor camp. At the age of 12 he was smuggled into Hong Kong. Cardinal Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, baptized him in 1997.
Earlier this week, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders honored Lai with a special prize for his courage in the face of “the sharp decline in press freedom in Hong Kong due to pressure from the Chinese regime.”