Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media tycoon in Hong Kong, was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on Saturday after being found guilty of fraud in a contractual dispute.
Lai, the 75-year-old founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, had recently served a 20-month prison sentence for his involvement in protests and unlawful gatherings.
He might face life in prison if convicted of national security crimes in his next trial.
While his previous convictions were tied to his role in the massive democracy protests that swept Hong Kong in 2019, the current prosecution involves one of his companies breaching the conditions of his newspaper’s lease.
In October, District Judge Stanley Chan found Lai and former Apple Daily executive Wong Wai-Keung guilty of fraud in what he described as a “planned, organized, and years-long” scam.
Prosecutors said that Lai’s consultancy firm had taken over office space that Apple Daily had rented for publication and printing.
Prosecutors claimed that this violated the terms of Apple Daily’s lease with a government firm and amounted to fraud.
Defense counsel previously contended that the matter should have been handled as a civil suit rather than a criminal prosecution, citing the little amount of square footage involved.
In addition to his prison sentence, Lai was fined HK$2 million ($257,000) and barred from managing businesses for eight years.
Wong, 61, was sentenced to 21 months in prison, with the court comparing him to “the getaway driver for a crime.”
The penalty was imposed in response to a “simple case of fraud” dating back to the 1990s when the lease was first implemented.
He chastised Apple Daily for utilizing its well-known media firm name as a “protective shield,” which he claimed prevented the landlord from taking action against the breach of lease terms.
However, he said that the case had nothing to do with politics or press freedom.
Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most well-known pro-democracy activists, has long been openly despised by Beijing.
For years, Apple Daily was harshly critical of China’s Communist Party while openly supporting democracy.
It went bankrupt last year after its funds were stopped and many of its senior workers were charged alongside Lai under the sweeping national security law established by Beijing on Hong Kong, chiefly for their push for international sanctions against China.