HONG KONG -- A pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper publisher who was arrested during a crackdown on dissent was charged Wednesday with fraud but no national security offenses, two newspapers reported.
Jimmy Lai of Next Digital, which publishes the Apple Daily newspaper, was among 10 people arrested Aug. 10 on what police said was suspicion of violating a national security law and collusion with a foreign country.
Lai, 71, was later released on bail but police raided his company’s offices in October and took away documents.
On Wednesday, Lai and two Next Digital executives were charged with fraud, the South China Morning Post and Apple Daily reported. They were accused of violating lease terms for Next Digital office space, the newspapers said. Apple Daily said a conviction carries a maximum possible prison term of 14 years.
There was no immediate official explanation of why Lai was charged only with fraud after police said the investigation involved the security law.
Hong Kong police said in a statement that it charged three men with fraud on Wednesday, and that they would appear in court on Thursday. It did not name the people charged. It said one of them had been suspected of violating the national security law, and that it was still under investigation.
Beijing imposed the national security law in response to protests in Hong Kong that began in June 2019 over a proposed extradition law and expanded to include demands for greater democracy in the former British colony.
The law prompted more public protests and led to complaints that Beijing is violating the autonomy promised to Hong Kong when it returned to China and damaging its status as a business center.
Apple Daily criticized the law on its front page on July 1, calling it the “final nail in the coffin” of the territory’s autonomy.
The British government earlier criticized Lai’s August arrest and said the security law was being used to crush dissent.
The law is “being implemented in a way that undermines freedom of speech,” the British government said in a report this month on the status of the 1984 agreement for Hong Kong’s return to China.
“It is imperative that this freedom is fully respected,” the report said.
Lai was earlier arrested in February and April on charges of taking part in unauthorized protests. He also faces charges for joining an unauthorized vigil marking the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protests centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
As of the end of October, 23 men and six women had been arrested under the national security law, according to the South China Morning Post. Violators face a maximum possible penalty of life in prison.
Also this week, a Hong Kong broadcaster laid off 40 journalists, including an editor who accused managers of meddling in sensitive coverage, fueling fears about threats to press freedom.
The broadcaster, i-Cable, announced it was cutting 100 positions from its workforce of 1,300. The company blamed the coronavirus pandemic, which has battered the Hong Kong economy.
The layoffs included the station’s investigative reporting team. Other journalists and department heads resigned in protest.
One of i-Cable’s senior editors, Wong Lai-ping, complained to public broadcaster RTHK that managers had tried to meddle in or discourage coverage of sensitive issues.
Wong said that included reporting on 12 people who were arrested at sea by Chinese authorities while en route to Taiwan. Wong said managers wanted more coverage of a Chinese government news conference.
“You can see the meddling,” Wong told RTHK.
A survey by the Hong Kong Journalists Association found 87% of those who responded believed press freedom would be “severely affected” by the security law. More than half expressed concern for their personal safety.