Pro-democracy Catholic Jimmy Lai denied bail in Hong Kong

shutterstock 1836389899 Jimmy Lai Chee Ying arrving at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Court, Hong Kong, Oct. 15, 2020. | Yung Chi Wai Derek/Shutterstock

Hong Kong’s highest court on Tuesday denied bail to Catholic media tycoon Jimmy Lai, whom police arrested last summer for apparent violations of a new China-imposed national security law.

Lai, an entrepreneur and billionaire, is perhaps the most high-profile detainee under the new law, which Beijing imposed directly on the island territory on July 1, 2020.

A band of nearly 200 police officers arrested Lai on Aug. 10, 2020, along with at least nine others connected to Apple Daily, the newspaper Lai founded in 1995, as part of an apparent crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong.

Lai initially was released on bail, before being taken into custody again several months later.

Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal on Feb. 9 unanimously denied Lai bail in the case before them, but left open the possibility that Lai’s legal team could make a “fresh application” for bail.

Hong Kong’s National Security Law is broad in its definitions of terrorism, sedition, and foreign collusion. Under the law, a person who is convicted of the aforementioned crimes will receive a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence.

The law also allows Hong Kong’s courts to deny bail unless “the judge has sufficient grounds for believing that the criminal suspect or defendant will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”

Apple Daily has distinguished itself over the years as a strongly pro-democracy publication critical of the Communist Chinese government in Beijing.

Prosecutors have accused Lai of breaching the law over statements he made on July 30 and Aug. 18, 2020, in which they allege he requested foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, Reuters reports.

Lai has supported the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement for over 30 years and has said that his Catholic faith is a major motivating factor in his pro-democracy advocacy.

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“Our instinct urges us to stand up to injustice, to evil. I think this is just an instinct. Being a Catholic, you have the instinct to stand up [to] what is wrong, because that's the way we walk in the way of the Lord," Lai said while previously out on bail last October.

Lai was charged in early December 2020 with breaching the terms of a lease for his company, Next Digital Media. He has since stepped down as chairman of Next Digital.

The court initially granted Lai a $1.3 million USD bail in late December 2020, but authorities brought him back into custody Dec. 31. His trial is expected to begin in April.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, has warned that Lai’s arrest shows a rise in “political intimidation” against journalists in Hong Kong, part of a systematic erosion of basic freedoms, including religious freedom, by the Chinese government in recent months.

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Hong Kong is a “special administrative region” of China, meaning it has its own government but remains under Chinese control. It was a British colony until 1997, when it was returned to China under a “one country, two systems” principle, which allowed for its own legislature and economic system.

Hong Kong’s openness to the outside world, and transparency in business and banking regulation, in contrast to mainland China, has made it a center of global business, banking, and finance.

In addition, Hong Kong has historically enjoyed freedom of religion, unlike mainland China, where religious believers of all stripes endure persecution.

Millions of citizens of Hong Kong, including many Catholics, have in recent years participated in large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which came to a head during summer 2019.

At that time, the protestors successfully rebuffed the Hong Kong legislature’s efforts last year to pass a bill that would have allowed mainland China to extradite alleged criminals from Hong Kong.

However, with the passage of the new national security laws, the Chinese government seized more power to suppress the protests in Hong Kong, which it sees as a direct challenge to its power.

Similar security rules have been proposed before; in 2003, the communist government attempted to use Hong Kong’s own legislative and executive councils to pass the anti-sedition measures, but massive protests led lawmakers to abandon the proposal.

One of the first large crackdowns by Beijing in Hong Kong occurred in August 2020, when several prominent democracy activists were arrested and charged, including Agnes Chow, a 23-year-old Catholic democracy activist. Chow has been outspoken in her support for civil rights in the former British colony.

In November, three of the pro-democracy activists, including Chow, pled guilty on charges related to their roles in an “illegal assembly” in 2019. The next month, they were each sentenced to months in prison, with the possibility that they will face further charges.

Police in Hong Kong arrested more than 50 people in early January 2021 for apparent violations of the national security law.

Among those arrested Jan. 6 were a number of politicians and organizers who took part in unofficial “primaries” to choose opposition candidates for the next elections in Hong Kong. The territory was slated to hold parliamentary elections during September 2020, but officials postponed them, citing dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin Lee Chu-ming, 82, a Catholic lawyer who founded Hong Kong’s Democratic Party in 1994, was last week nominated to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. Hong Kong police arrested Lee, along with 14 other pro-democracy protestors, on April 18, 2020. Lee was arrested for taking part in protests in 2019 against the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

Lee is currently out on bail with a trial set to begin Feb. 16.

In recent months, the Diocese of Hong Kong has issued directives to Catholic schools on “fostering the correct values on national identity” and respecting Chinese national symbols including the flag and national anthem. It has also blocked a Catholic pro-democracy ad campaign and prayer that was set to run in local newspapers.

The Diocese of Hong Kong remains without a permanent bishop, as the diocese has been led since 2019 by Cardinal Tong, who retired in 2017 and was brought back after Hong Kong’s previous bishop died unexpectedly.

Britain early in 2021 opened a new path to British citizenship for Hong Kongers, granting those with British National (Overseas) status to live, study and work in Britain for five years and eventually apply for citizenship, NBC News reported. Some 300,000 Hong Kongers are expected to take advantage of the visa and leave Hong Kong, the British government projects.

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