Hong Kong Media Mogul Jimmy Lai Released on Bail Under House Arrest

Hong Kong Media Mogul Jimmy Lai Released on Bail Under House Arrest Jimmy Lai, founder of the Apple Daily, walks to a police van after being charged under the National Security Law in Hong Kong, Dec. 12, 2020.

A court in Hong Kong on Wednesday granted bail to pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is awaiting trial under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), placing him under house arrest until his next court appearance in April.

Lai was released by High Court judge Alex Lee -- a judge handpicked by the government to adjudicate on national security cases -- on condition that he remains in his home and reports to the local police station three times a week, and surrenders his travel documents to the authorities.

His conditional release came after he spent 20 days behind bars after bail was denied on Dec. 3 and again on Dec. 12.

Lai is also barred from giving any media interviews, posting on social media, publishing articles, and meeting with overseas officials.

He is charged under the National Security Law for Hong Kong with calling on "overseas institutions, organizations and personnel to impose sanctions or take other hostile actions against Hong Kong or China" between July 1 and Dec. 1, 2020.

Prosecutors have cited interviews he gave to foreign media organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Fox News, as well as comments and accounts he followed on Twitter.

Some of the evidence cited by prosecutors predates the implementation of the new law, including a meeting Lai held with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 8, 2019 during a trip to Washington, before the national security law took effect.

On Twitter, Lai was accused of collusion with foreign powers for following Tsai Ing-wen, president of democratic Taiwan, on Twitter, and for thanking Pompeo for his support on July 11 and 12, 2020.

Lai joined Twitter in May 2020, and had followed 53 people, including Tsai, Benedict Rogers, vice chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Committee, and Conservative Human Rights Committee member Luke de Pulford, counting former 1989 democracy movement leaders Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi among his 100,000 followers, the indictment said.

Charges against Lai criticized

Former opposition lawmakers have hit out at the charges, saying that Lai shouldn't be prosecuted retroactively, while U.S. officials have lauded him as a "hero."

Some of the conditions, including the house arrest and staying away from social media, were suggested by Lai's own defense lawyers, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

Hong Kong's department of justice said it would appeal the decision at the city's Court of Final Appeal.

Lai's release on bail came as pro-CCP media reported that Beijing is planning to extend its crackdown on political opposition in Hong Kong with new curbs on district councilors.

Pro-China media have reported that the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee – which is currently meeting in Beijing – may declare that district councilors must take an oath of allegiance, and could move to scrap their 117 seats on the Beijing-backed Election Committe that picks Hong Kong's chief executive.

Moves are reportedly also afoot in Beijing to scrap the councilors' five "superseats" representing the District Council in the Legislative Council (LegCo).

The most recent District Council elections in November 2019 resulted in a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates, following months of mass popular protest against the erosion of Hong Kong's promised freedoms.

Beijing unwilling to communicate

Former Democratic Party lawmaker Emily Lau told RFA that Beijing seems uninterested in any kind of political dialogue with Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, which resigned en masse from LegCo last month in protest at the NPC standing committee's ouster of four opposition lawmakers.

"It is completely impossible to communicate now, and the central government is totally unwilling to communicate," Lau said. "Nowadays, they see dialogue as weakness."

"[The District Council] is controlled by the opposition, so they are going to cancel it," she said. "The rules are irrelevant now because ... they will just change them if they don't like them."

"This is the Communist Party, so we have no illusions ... but we do what we have to do," she said. "[CCP leader] Xi Jinping is different from [his predecessors] Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao."

"What he wants is totalitarian rule and absolute control," Lau said.

Reported by Gigi Lee and Cheng Yut Yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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