Hong Kong pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai, a committed Catholic, has been charged under the territory’s controversial new national security law described as political intimidation by a prominent clerical critic of Beijing.
Lai appeared in court on Dec. 12 to faces charges of colluding with foreign forces, Aljazeera reported and he will have to stay in custody for the next four months as he was denied bail.
The 73-year-old Lai struggled to walk as he was led into the West Kowlood Court in handcuffs and chained, flanked by two police officers.
Lai, is accused of conspiring with foreign forces to endanger national security, and could face a lengthy jail term, the BBC reported.
Former Legislative Council members, Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, as well as a few protesters, showed up in court to express their support for Lai.
Lai’s main charge is colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security when he called for sanctions against Hong Kong authorities and China from July to December this year.
Lai founded the Apple Daily newspaper and is an unflinching critic of the authorities in Beijing.
The Chinese authorities have said the new security law will return stability to the territory after a year of unrest, but critics say it has silenced dissent.
Retired Hong Kong bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun warned that the recent arrest of Jimmy Lai shows a rise in “political intimidation” against journalists in Hong Kong.
He said it is part of a systematic erosion of basic freedoms, including religious freedom, by the Chinese government in recent months.
In an interview with Catholic News Agency (CNA) Zen said the arrest of Lai, a pro-democracy advocate and the founder of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper was the most recent example of Chinese Communist authorities attempting to stifle a free press.
Lai was charged Dec 2. with breaching the terms of a lease for his company, Next Digital Media.
Lai has previously been arrested and jailed for pro-democracy advocacy, under the terms of the new Hong Kong National Security Law, imposed on the territory in July.
Last week, Lai, along with two Next Digital executives, was arrested for allegedly breaching the terms of Next Digital’s land lease at its headquarters building. The other executives were released the following day, but Lai was denied bail.
“It’s obviously a case of political intimidation,” Cardinal Zen told CNA, noting that Lai’s treatment by local authorities was a public warning to others.
“Jimmy Lai is obviously the one who runs the only newspaper which is still completely free.
“You know many other papers are bought by people on the side of government, there may still be some respectable reporters working for them but at the right moment they can suppress everything,” said Zen.
“So, there is a clear policy direction: suppress the freedom of expression.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet was questioned about the situation in Hong Kong at a press conference in Geneva on Dec. 9
“I’m concerned about the rapidly shrinking civic and democratic space, especially since the passage of the National Security Law,” she said.
“A year ago, in the midst of mass protests in Hong Kong, I had called for a broad open, inclusive dialogue to resolve the situation. Regrettably, the space has been closing rather than opening. Recent convictions of activists for protests that took place last year risk causing a wider, chilling effect of the exercise of fundamental freedoms,
“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has historically had a strong independent judiciary. I call on judicial authorities to apply laws in conformity with the Hong Kong’s human rights obligations,” said Bachelet.