HONG KONG—An outspoken newspaper mogul and advocate for democracy in Hong Kong will have to return to jail after a court suspended his bail in a case that is fueling tensions between Beijing and the city’s judiciary.
Prosecutors had requested an emergency hearing after a Hong Kong court allowed
who is charged with fraud and national security violations, to be released on $1.29 million bail last week and put under house arrest. He was the first defendant accused under the new national security law to be released on bail.
On Thursday, the city’s highest court ruled that he would have to return to prison pending a Feb. 1 review of the threshold for granting bail under the new law, which will be conducted by an appeal committee made up of three judges.
The case is being closely watched by Beijing. On Saturday, the People’s Daily, a newspaper seen as a mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, called the decision to grant bail unbelievable, saying in a commentary that the bail conditions were disproportionate to the damage to national security that could be caused by Mr. Lai—who it branded as “notorious and extremely dangerous.”
Mr. Lai, who arrived for the hearing Thursday holding a Bible and flanked by reporters, is a prominent Hong Kong entrepreneur who built a successful clothing brand before founding Apple Daily, a newspaper that openly criticizes China’s Communist Party and pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong. He appeared regularly at pro-democracy protests in the city, at times at the front of processions.
In court on Thursday, the prosecution argued that the national security law carried a no-bail provision and that the public couldn’t afford to have defendants released since the offenses covered under the law are as serious as treason and murder. Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal ruled that the judge may have erred in his decision to grant bail, and the coming hearing would determine how to handle Mr. Lai’s bail under the national security law.
The court fell into silence as the justice read out the determination. Mr. Lai remained calm and shook hands with one supporter, as another shouted “Add Oil!” in Cantonese, a popular phrase of support.
The People’s Daily and other Chinese state media have increasingly criticized Hong Kong’s judiciary in recent months, suggesting that Beijing could still decide to intervene. The newspaper said in the Saturday commentary that there could be grounds for invoking a provision in the national security law that would allow the central government to assert jurisdiction over certain cases and move defendants to the mainland for trial.
The law, imposed by Beijing after massive pro-democracy protests brought the city to a standstill at times in 2019, gives authorities broad latitude to prosecute people for collusion, secession and sedition. The newspaper’s commentary also pointed to the case of a student who was facing rioting charges and later went into hiding, adding: “Are these painful lessons not enough of a wake-up call?”
“Jimmy Lai is an important pawn for some external forces, and has great anti-China value—external forces have the motive to facilitate his escape from Hong Kong,” the paper wrote. “Who will be responsible if he flees or continues to bring harm to Hong Kong while he’s out on bail?”
Hong Kong’s courts have long been lauded for their independence, in part contributing to the city’s status as an international hub for business and finance. Based on common law principles and a legacy of its British colonial past, the courts are seen as one of the last holdouts against Beijing’s increasingly assertive rule.
“This case is a critical turning point in the unfolding of the national security law and a crisis for the judiciary in Hong Kong,” said Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor and China legal authority who worked in Hong Kong, adding that the Saturday article was “an evident attempt to put the greatest public political pressure on Hong Kong’s independent judiciary.”
In the past few months, Hong Kong’s courts have issued acquittals for defendants on charges related to last year’s protests, as judges questioned evidence in the cases. At the same time, there are signs of increasing pressure on the courts since the national security legislation came into effect. Judges that have handed down some rulings favorable to activists have been reassigned, while others have drawn criticism from local pro-Beijing politicians and Chinese state media.
On Tuesday, High Court Justice Alex Lee Wan-tang wrote in a judicial release detailing his decision to grant bail last week that Mr. Lai had an arguable case and the high threshold for bail under the national security law could be met by imposing strict conditions. Mr. Lee said he had considered the prosecution’s arguments, including that Mr. Lai owns two pleasure boats he might use to flee, but accepted unusually stringent bail conditions that Mr. Lai’s legal team proposed to mitigate his flight risk.
As part of his bail requirements, Mr. Lai had been required to remain at his residence except when reporting to police several times a week. The bail amount was set at 10 million Hong Kong dollars, or $1.29 million. Mr. Lai wasn’t allowed to meet with foreign officials, make public statements, give interviews or post on social media.
Local media reported that police cordons were regularly set up around Mr. Lai’s house, checking vehicles coming and going around the area.
Mr. Lai was arrested in August along with nine others, and was told then that he was under suspicion of breaching the law. Earlier this month, he was charged with collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison under the new law.
Evidence in the case against Mr. Lai includes messages he posted on
since July 1, after the national security law took effect, as well as video interviews he gave in which he allegedly called for U.S. sanctions against Hong Kong, a prosecutor said at a Dec. 11 hearing.
After the law was introduced, Mr. Lai continued to speak out about what he saw as threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms, including in regular livestream videos that featured foreign guests. He also began using Twitter more regularly in the past few months until his detention, though his account appears to have been deleted after he was granted bail.
On Tuesday, Next Digital Ltd., which publishes Apple Daily, said in a statement that Mr. Lai had tendered his resignation as the chairman of the board and an executive director of the company in order to spend more time dealing with his personal affairs.
—Wenxin Fan contributed to this article.
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