Hong Kong media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, 76, the founder of the now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and a British citizen, has been detained since December 2020. Lai is currently serving a prison sentence of five years and nine months on fraud charges related to a lease dispute and is on a separate trial under national security charges, which could see him jailed for life.
Lai founded Next Digital Limited, a media company that published the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily from 1995 to 2021, and Next Magazine from 1989 to 2021.
On February 28, 2020, Hong Kong police arrested Lai at his home on suspicion of participating in a prohibited pro-democracy march on August 31, 2019, and of criminal intimidation in relation to an incident on June 4, 2017, when he allegedly swore at a reporter from the rival Chinese-language Oriental Daily. Lai was charged and released on bail the same day, and later acquitted of the criminal intimidation charge.
On April 18, police again arrested Lai at his home on suspicion of organizing and participating in the 2019 demonstration, and released him on bail later that day.
On June 11, police notified Lai that he would be charged with "inciting others to participate in an unauthorized assembly" for his participation in a vigil days earlier marking the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre.
On August 10, police arrested Lai, his two sons, and four Apple Daily executives for alleged collusion with foreign powers under the national security law; the executives and his sons were released on August 11, and Lai was released on bail on August 12.
On December 2, police detained Lai and two Next Digital executives on a fraud charge, and on December 11 authorities charged Lai with foreign collusion under Hong Kong’s national security law. On December 23, Lai was released to house arrest on bail, and a judge ordered that he not leave his home except to report to police, and prohibited him from using social media, publishing articles, and giving interviews.
According to Hong Kong’s public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong, the fraud charge stems from an allegation that Lai, along with Next Digital’s administrative director Wong Wai-keung and chief operating officer Royston Chow, illegally violated a lease with the Hong Kong Science Park. Chow was later granted immunity for testifying against Lai.
Lai’s arrest came amid authorities’ crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy movement, which targeted many media figures and activists critical of the government and the Chinese Communist Party.
On April 16, 2021, prosecutors charged Lai with an additional offense under the national security law for allegedly conspiring with others to call for foreign sanctions between July 2020 and January 2021, and a common-law offense for allegedly perverting the course of justice by helping an activist escape to Taiwan.
The same day, Lai pled guilty to organizing and participating in two unauthorized pro-democracy marches on August 18 and 31, 2019, and a court sentenced him to 14 months in prison. On May 28, 2021, Lai pled guilty to organizing and participating in another unauthorized pro-democracy march on October 1, 2019, and received another 14-month sentence.
The court combined Lai’s sentences into a total of 20 months in prison, but he was not released when that period was exceeded in 2022. On August 14, 2023, Hong Kong’s court of appeal quashed Lai’s conviction for organizing an unauthorized assembly on August 18, 2019, and reduced the sentence from 12 months to 9 months, after he had already served the sentence.
In December 2021, Lai was sentenced again to 13 months in prison for “inciting others” to take part in an unauthorized assembly in 2020. The judge ordered the sentence to run concurrently with the previous sentences he was serving.
Lai and Wong Wai-keung, a Next Digital administrative director, were each convicted of the fraud charges on October 25, 2022, and sentenced to 5 years and 9 months, and 21 months, respectively, on December 10, 2022.
On December 18, 2023, after repeated delays, Lai went on trial for three counts of collusion under national security law and one sedition charge. Lai pleaded not guilty to all four charges.
Lai was honored with CPJ’s Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award in 2021. On March 17, 2023, the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and four U.N. special rapporteurs expressed grave concern about Lai’s arrest, detention, and prosecution.
CPJ’s email to the Hong Kong Police Force in October 2023 did not receive a response.