Hong Kong media tycoon jailed for 13 months over Tiananmen vigil

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai pleaded not guilty to unauthorised assembly charges

Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media tycoon and one of the city's most high-profile critics of Beijing, has been sentenced to 13 months in prison for inciting others to take part in a banned assembly last year to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Mr Lai (74) had pleaded not guilty to the unauthorised assembly charges along with pro-democracy activist Gwyneth Ho and Chow Hang-tung, vice-chair of the group that organised the annual Tiananmen mass memorial.

The founder of the now-defunct tabloid Apple Daily has spent more than 300 days in custody and jail in relation to several other charges brought under the national security law, which Beijing imposed on the city following pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre have been banned in mainland China but Hong Kong was able to hold public memorials on June 4th each year for three decades. Local authorities have banned the vigil for the past two years, citing coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings.

But critics have condemned that justification as a pretext to crack down on political demonstrations in the Chinese territory.

Ms Ho and Ms Chow were sentenced to six and 12 months in prison, respectively. Five other opposition figures, including four members of the group that organised the Tiananmen vigil who pleaded guilty last month, were also sentenced to 4½ to 14 months in jail on Monday.

Mr Lai told the court through his lawyer: “If commemorating those who died because of injustice is a crime ... [then] let me suffer the punishment of this crime, so I may share the burden and glory of those young men and women who shed their blood on June 4th.”

Crackdown

In total, 24 opposition figures, including activist Joshua Wong, have been arrested for their roles in participating in and inciting others to attend last year's vigil. Sixteen pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to between four and 10 months in prison this year.

Thomas E Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown University's Asia law centre, said the sentencing marked a "major restriction of free expression", adding that any mass events marking the Tiananmen crackdown would likely disappear from the city.

“As [local authorities] redraw the lines of what is permissible in terms of free expression in Hong Kong, it now has the duty to enforce the ban, and to crack down on any and all efforts to publicly commemorate June 4th for years to come,” he said.

The sentencing followed a series of moves by authorities to target memorials related to the Tiananmen crackdown. The “Pillar of Shame”, a sculpture commemorating the massacre, was close to being removed by the University of Hong Kong in October after it was criticised by pro-Beijing figures, but the plans stalled following international pressure.

Last month, Walt Disney’s streaming service dropped an episode of The Simpsons that referred to mainland China’s censorship of the Tiananmen massacre when the media company launched the platform in Hong Kong. Disney has not responded to multiple requests for comment. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021