Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai was arrested Monday and handcuffed through his newspaper office as police raided the building, part of a sweeping dispute since China imposed a security law on the city.
Lai, 71, was among seven people arrested on suspicion of clashing with foreign forces – one of the new national security offenses – and fraud in an operation targeting his Next Digital publishing group.
It was the latest police operation against dissidents under the new law implemented in late June. Two of Lai’s sons were among those detained, a police source told AFP.
The most serious national security crimes continue life in prison.
Journalists working at Apple Daily Lai took to Facebook to broadcast dramatic footage of about 200 police officers conducting the raid, and newspaper editor-in-chief Law Wai-kwong seeking an order from officers.
“Tell your colleagues to hold their hands until our lawyers check the order,” he was filmed saying.
Apple staff were ordered to leave their seats and line up so police could check their identities as officers searched the newsroom.
At one point Lai was present, in handcuffs and surrounded by officers.
Police said the search was carried out with a court order, which was told to staff.
Chris Yeung, president of the Journalists’ Association in Hong Kong, described the police action as “shocking and horrific”.
“This is unprecedented and would have been unimaginable just a month or two ago,” he said.
Law Editor The law later sent a note to staff, seen by AFP, telling reporters to “stay close to their posts” after he vowed to publish the latest edition, despite the raid.
– ‘Prepared for prison’ –
The security law was introduced in an effort to quell last year’s large and often violent pro-democracy protests, and authorities have since used their new powers to pursue the city’s democracy camp, prompting criticism from western nations and sanctions from the United States.
Apple Daily and Lai’s Next Magazine are non-pro-democracy and critical of Beijing.
They are extremely popular, but almost entirely funded by Lai’s pocket because few companies dare to advertise with them so as not to anger Beijing.
Following Lait’s arrest, Next Digital shares rose more than 250 percent as supporters made online calls for people to buy the shares.
Across the border, some Hong Konggers produce the level of personal vitriol from Beijing that Lai makes.
China routinely calls him a “traitor” and a “black hand” following last year’s protests.
Allegations of Lai clashing with foreigners were dismissed in the state media last year when he met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence.
Lai spoke to AFP in mid-June, two weeks before the new security law in Hong Kong is enacted.
“I’m prepared for prison,” he said.
He described Beijing’s new security law as “a death knell for Hong Kong” and said he feared authorities would follow his reporters.
He also dropped the clause allegations, saying Hong Kongers had the right to meet with foreign politicians.
– Implementation of the new law –
Beijing’s new law aims at secession, destruction, terrorism and cooperation with foreign powers.
Both China and Hong Kong have said it will not affect freedoms and will target only a minority.
But its widely expressed provisions criminalized certain political overnight speech, such as the protection of sanctions, greater autonomy, or independence for Hong Kong.
Critics, including many Western countries, believe the law has ended the key freedoms and autonomy Beijing promised Hong Kong could hold after its 1997 surrender to Britain.
Washington responded last week by imposing sanctions on a group of Chinese and Hong Kong officials – including city leader Carrie Lam.
The introduction of the law has coincided with the strengthening of police action against supporters of democracy.
About two dozen – including Lai – have been charged with opposing a police ban on attending the Tiananmen memorial vigil in early June. Lai and many others are being prosecuted for participating in last year’s protests.
Last month a dozen high-profile pro-democracy figures were disqualified from running in local elections for holding unacceptable political views.
Banned opinions included criticism of security law and campaigns to gain a majority in the city’s partially elected legislature to block government laws.
Shortly after the disqualifications, Lam mayor postponed the election for a year, citing an increase in coronavirus cases.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published by a union source.)