Defiant Hong Kong media baron arrested over role in protests

Hong Kong: A Hong Kong media tycoon known for his ardent opposition to China was arrested Friday over his role in a pro-democracy protest last year, the police said, dealing another blow to the city's independent media.

Founder of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, Jimmy Lai, walks out from a police station after being bailed out in Hong Kong.Credit:AP

The tycoon, Jimmy Lai, a rare figure among Hong Kong's elite for his willingness to take on Beijing, owns Next Media Group, which publishes a popular pro-democracy newspaper and website called Apple Daily. His arrest comes as the city has been dealing with the twin shocks of the protest movement and now the coronavirus outbreak.

His singular status as a prominent businessman in Hong Kong who openly supports the democracy movement and anti-government protests has made him a frequent target of Beijing-backed elements.

Lai was arrested on allegations of taking part in an unauthorised assembly August 31, a police spokesman said on Friday. That day, crowds of protesters defied a police ban on their march and clashed with riot officers. Two other veteran pro-democracy activists were also arrested Friday over their roles in the protest.

The unexpected, high-profile arrests, which took place at the activists' homes, were made as Hong Kong, already rocked by months of protests last year, battled to contain the coronavirus outbreak, which has fuelled panic and further distrust of the authorities.

Hong Kong media magnate Jimmy Lai, centre, is taken away by police officers at the occupied area outside government headquarters in Hong Kong. Credit:AP

Lai was also arrested on allegations of "criminal intimidation" over an incident three years ago, the police spokesman said.

Oriental Daily, a pro-Beijing publication, published a clip from an exchange that day, on June 4, 2017, which showed Lai using foul language and uttering threats at one of its reporters at a vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

"Finally arrested after more than two and a half years," the site's headline read. It was unclear what had preceded the exchange.

Mark Simon, Lai's top aide, confirmed the arrest.

Police later said in a statement that the three men have been charged for "knowingly taking part in an unauthorised assembly," while Lai faced an additional charge of intimidation.

Lai and Oriental Daily have shared a history as both political and journalistic rivals. In 2014, the pro-Beijing newspaper printed a fake, full-page obituary of a man with almost the same name as Lai's along with his accurate biographical details, saying he had died of AIDS and cancer.

The arrests were made the same week as a court in China sentenced a Hong Kong bookseller, Gui Minhai, to 10 years in prison. Gui sold gossipy books about China's leaders and disappeared mysteriously in Thailand in 2015 and later emerged as a target of China's effort to quell dissent.

The arrests on Friday morning came after the arrests of more than 7000 demonstrators since June as part of the Hong Kong government's campaign to clamp down on the protest movement.

China has worked relentlessly to vilify Lai, who has provided a powerful, wide-reaching platform to the mostly young and leaderless protesters in Hong Kong.

In a Facebook post Friday, the Labour Party in Hong Kong confirmed that the police had arrested its vice chairman, Lee Cheuk-yan, a longtime democracy advocate, over his role in the August 31 march. It condemned the police for "indiscriminate arrests" and "suppressing Hong Kong people's right to protest."

Yeung Sum, another activist and former chairman of the Democratic Party, was also arrested Friday, the party said.

The New York Times

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