Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai was arrested on Thursday after being accused of fraud, the latest in a series of indictments against high-profile Beijing critics and democracy campaigns.
Lai, 73, is the owner of Hong Kong’s best-selling Apple Daily, a popular tabloid that is shamefully democratic and critical of authorities.
Lai and two of the company’s executives – Royston Chow and Wong Wai-keung – face fraud charges that, according to court documents, are related to the newspaper’s offices that are alleged to be used for purposes not permitted under the building’s lease.
Police raided Apple Daily’s headquarters in August and arrested a number of leading businessmen, including Lai, on suspicion of “collaborating with foreign forces” under a vaguely worded new national security law introduced by Beijing.
No one has so far been accused of violating national security.
But Victor So, the judge overseeing Thursday’s hearing, comes from a group of judges selected by Hong Kong’s chief executive to try such cases.
So the Lai bail denied but granted it to Wong and Chow and set the next court date for April.
The decision means that Lai faces months behind bars when the police continue their investigation.
A restraint has been gaining momentum in Hong Kong since China introduced its comprehensive security law in June, with opposition politicians disqualified and dozens of activists accused or investigated.
On Wednesday, three prominent young democratic campaigns – including Joshua Wong – were arrested for participating in last year’s democracy protests.
Lai is also being prosecuted for his alleged part in these gatherings in a separate case.
The move has sparked outrage in the West and fears for millions who took to the streets last year to protest Communist China’s tightening of its semi-autonomous city.
Beijing says stability and order have been restored and has fired the huge crowds that protested as a foreign conspiracy to destabilize China.
Critics say Beijing has shredded the freedoms and autonomy promised to Hong Kong before the handover of Britain.
Lai has long said he fears the authorities want to close his newspaper, one of the few local outlets still willing to accept Beijing.
In Chinese state media, he is routinely cast as a traitor and “black hand”.
“I am ready for prison,” Lai told AFP in an interview two weeks before the security law was introduced.
“I’m a troublemaker. I came here with nothing, the freedom of this place has given me everything. Maybe it’s time I paid back for that freedom by fighting for it, he added.
Prosecutors have previously tried to bring charges against him.
He was acquitted in September of intimidating a reporter from a rival government newspaper.
The corruption coroner also released a case against him due to political donations to pro-democracy supporters after four years of investigations.
Authorities deny targeting Apple Daily or Lai, saying police are simply breaking the law.