Fierce Beijing critic Jimmy Lai jailed for 14 months over Hong Kong pro-democracy protests

Lai, a 73-year-old billionaire, has been remanded in jail since December.

April 16, 2021, 8:32 PM

Hong Kong's rebel media tycoon Jimmy Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison in Hong Kong District Court Friday after being found guilty of charges related to pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Lai, a 73-year-old billionaire and founder of pro-democracy paper Apple Daily, has been remanded in jail since December.

In addition, Hong Kong's "father of democracy" Martin Lee, 83, was given suspended sentences for the Aug. 18 and Aug. 31 protests, which were sparked by a widely unpopular extradition bill, which would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. Anger over the proposed legislation grew into a broader call for democracy in the Chinese-ruled territory. The mass protests lasted for more than six months, plunging Asia's financial hub into crisis.

It represented the biggest form of resistance to the Chinese Communist Party in a generation.

The two are among a handful of other prominent activists and lawmakers charged with organizing and taking part in what authorities called unauthorized assemblies. At least four of the other defendants were jailed up to 18 months.

"The sentences handed down are incompatible with the non-violent nature of their actions," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. "We will continue to stand with Hong Kongers as they respond to Beijing’s assault on these freedoms and autonomy, and we will not stop calling for the release of those detained or imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms."

It's the first sentencing for Lai, who has been denied bail in a separate national security trial. On Friday, prosecutors also added two more charges to Lai's national security case, related to his alleged assistance of fugitive Andy Li. Li was among 12 Hong Kong activists intercepted at sea by the Chinese coast guard during a failed escape bid last year. That case is adjourned until June 15, while another fraud case leveled against Lai will be heard in May.

PHOTO: In this file photo taken on June 16, 2020, millionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 72, speaks during an interview with AFP at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong.
In this file photo taken on June 16, 2020, millionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 72, speaks during an interview with AFP at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong.
Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Lai was arrested on Aug. 10 under the controversial national security law, which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong at the end of June to clamp down on the pro-democracy movement after last year's unrest.

The national security law targets succession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, but critics say it breaches the "One Country, Two Systems" framework, which is meant to guarantee Hong Kong people a degree of autonomy and freedom not afforded to the mainland.

There have been a wave of arrests and prosecutions of activists since the law came into effect, with many of the territory's most well-known pro-democracy figures either behind bars or in self-imposed exile.

Speaking with ABC News at his home while he was out on bail in September, Lai said that Apple Daily will push on, despite the odds.

Last week, Lai sent a handwritten letter to his colleagues, published in Apple Daily, from prison: "It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice. As long as we are not blinded by unjust temptations, as long as we do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility."