A Hong Kong court granted HK$10 million ($1.3 million) bail on Dec. 23 to media tycoon Jimmy Lai, the highest profile pro-democracy activist charged under the city’s new national security law, on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces.
Lai is one of the financial hub’s most ardent Beijing critics, while his Next Media group is considered one of the key remaining bastions of media freedom. The 73-year-old democracy activist was arrested in August when about 200 police officers raided the newsroom of his Apple Daily tabloid.
Lai, who has been in custody since Dec. 3, is also charged with fraud related to the lease of a building that houses Apple Daily.
The 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 the law is necessary to plug gaping holes in national security defenses exposed by months of pro-democracy protests that rocked the global financial hub last year.
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.
Under his bail terms, Lai is not allowed to meet with foreign officials, give any interviews, publish any articles or post on social media, and will have to remain at home and surrender his travel documents.
The tycoon has been a frequent visitor to Washington, meeting with officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.
Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen said the arrest of Lai, a Catholic, is “obviously a case of political intimidation,” adding that the democracy activist’s arrest was a warning to others.
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 baptized him in 1997, the same year that the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule.
Earlier this month, 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.”
Reporters Without Borders said that Lai’s publications continue to openly criticize the Chinese government and widely covered last year’s pro-democracy protests.